By Peggy Chong
Distributed by Shakespir
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 –
Chapter 2 –
Chapter 3 –
Chapter 4 –
Chapter 5 –
Chapter 6 –
Chapter 7 –
Chapter 8 –
Chapter 9 –
Chapter 10 –
Chapter 11 –
Chapter 12 –
Chapter 13 –
Chapter 14 –
Chapter 15 –
Chapter 16 –
Chapter 17 –
Chapter 18 –
Chapter 19 –
My name is Peggy Chong and I am the Blind History Lady. I wish to introduce to you and the world, sighted and blind alike what it really was like to be an average blind person in the United States of America over the past two centuries.
For more years than I care to admit to in this writing, I have been collecting news articles and other material about blind persons and programs for the blind from across the country. It began when reviewing old records in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota’s old files where I was a long-time member. I began to run across references of blind people I did not know.
Being raised in the blind community all my life, I, arrogantly assumed, I knew it all when it came to blindness. Many of the sighted people I knew in my community assumed I was an expert on blindness because I was blind and I bought into their assumption. For that place in time, I probably was an expert as I did know more than many other blind and sighted people at that place and in that time. But going through those files made me realize just how little I did know about the blind persons who had come before, all they had to traverse to live a normal life and to accomplish all they did and with so few resources that we, the blind take for granted today.
Since the middle 1990’s, I have learned so much more about the lives blind people in our country have led. The careers they tried and succeeded in, the blindness techniques they used to live a better life, the changes in our society that changed the attitudes, opportunities, success and misconceptions of and with the blind and more importantly the re-purposing approach, with only the limited resources immediately available to them, that so many successful blind people experimented with to better their lives, and the lives of those around them, be they blind or sighted.
Examples of some of the contributions that have become common-place in our society yet were meant for the blind will surprise you as they did me. The typewriter was an invention for the blind. According to an article in the New York Times on October 28, 1999, the typewriter was an invention for the blind. Pellegrino Turri of Italy was in love with a blind, very married, Countess. The couple wished to exchange correspondence, privately. He designed the very first typewriter for his lover to write to him without the knowledge of the Count. Other inventions for the blind included carbon papers, the record player, sock sorter and even the scanner that is now in almost every office and many homes today.
Over the years I have written many articles for blindness publications, introducing the blind of today, to those blind people I found in the files that I now consider our blind ancestors of the past. Through countless hours of reading, researching and analyzing over and over again what I have learned, I was amazed that some of my pre-conceived ideas that I took as fact, were filled with as much prejudices as I had accused others of holding towards the blind.
I looked for a commonality amongst the successful blind persons, those who led happy, satisfying and fulfilled lives in their community and some who, yes, became financially very well off. Oddly, I find very few similarities other than a strong desire to take control of their lives and having a strong support network. Even in their desire to be in control of their own destiny, there were so many variations. Some of the blind people I have studied and researched seem to have that characteristic born into them while others had to face desperate times before taking a risk and step out of their comfort zone. Most are somewhere in between.
Each of the blind persons who found success in their lives, be it monetarily or personally, had strong support networks that provided critical feedback and an ability to pursue their goals unencumbered. The support networks all differed. Some had strong family support with high expectations. Others had strong support from their fellow workers who knew their skills had not diminished because of blindness, while others fund support, information and inspiration from the blind community.
One question I kept asking myself as I found one more little tidbit of blind history was, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?”. If I did not know of this fact or that person, how would other blind people know this valuable piece of information that stopped me from re-inventing the wheel again and again?
As I said, I was active in the organized blind movement, from the age of 14. I grew up around blind people all my life, attended school with other blind persons and regularly read blindness publications. I considered myself well-informed. It was not until I began to research my family tree, getting over-involved with genealogy, did I realize that even in our biological families, where we have the older generation relating stories of the past, the family bibles, old photographs and letters, yet we as family, do not even know some of the most profound facts about our grandparents and don’t think about asking until it is too late. I realize now just how disadvantaged the blind as a minority are when it comes to learning about those who have come before us as we do not have the family ties that bind.
Those you will read about in this book I think of, as another set of my ancestors. They are the ones who have come before us, making us, the blind, who we are today. They have blazed trails for us that in too many instances have succumb to weeds, too often lost to us forever.
Collecting school for the blind enrollment records from the 1800’s, I have found hundreds and hundreds of names of blind children that are lost to time at this point. Thanks to the enrollment records, we know they lived in a specific state, maybe a birth record and attended school, but what happened to them afterwards? Far too many dropped out of sight, not even a death record. Now knowing the general history of the blind in the 19th century and into the 20th century, we can guess that they may have gone home to be in the care of family. Yet, because of state and local welfare laws requiring family to financially support their disabled family members, it is more likely that blind people ended up abandoned in most ways by their family who could not afford to support them, trying to do what was best for their blind loved one. Far too many untrained blind adults were placed in asylums, not necessarily for the blind, Homes for the blind or poor. Many lived in conditions that would be considered appalling by today’s standards. The vast majority of blind people of the 19th century were so poor that they did not even come to the attention of the authorities when they died.
Just as I have shared with family my discoveries of our family history with my relatives, I wish to share with the world, the blind branch of our family tree full of blind ancestors in all walks of life, doing all kinds of interesting and sometimes surprising feats in the United States.
In this book I would like to begin to introduce to you the ancestors of the blind that I have come to know and have shared over the years with many. I hope that you will enjoy reading about the successes, set-backs, opportunities, the lack of opportunities and the journey of the blind of the United States as they really lived.
The Blind History Lady plans to have many more, in-depth profiles of many more blind persons of our past from all walks of life, across our country who we can all learn something from and about. Please look for my stories in your favorite electronic bookstore.
Several years ago, while searching through old Iowa newspapers on an unrelated topic, I ran across a reference to the Industrial Home for the Blind. After asking several long-time residents of Iowa connected to the blindness field, I soon discovered that no one knew about this home. I was curious. Recently, I had some time to devote to this topic and was surprised at what I learned.
In the history of the blind in Iowa, it is said that before the arrival of Kenneth Jernigan, the noted director of the Commission for the blind from 1958-1978, Iowa had the worst reputation for service to the blind of the country. But rarely had I ever run across any specifics to verify that assertion. The story of the Industrial Home for the Blind is certainly a good example of such a case.
First, some background. In August of 1852, Professor Samuel Bacon, a blind man, began a private school called the Institution for the Instruction of the Blind of Iowa in the town of Keokuk. He began this without any financial aid from the state of Iowa. In 1853, an Act was passed by the Iowa General Assembly that established the “Asylum for the Blind”. Professor Bacon’s Institution was adopted for this purpose and it was moved to Iowa City, Iowa. The law directed that a board of Trustees be appointed to oversee the school. It opened for students in Iowa City on April 4, 1853 at no charge to any blind person in the state.
Professor Bacon became the principal of the school in Iowa City. There were 23 students that first term. In 1854, Professor Bacon recommended to the General Assembly that the name of the school should be changed to a title more in the line with education, the name; “College for the Blind” was officially adopted. He also encouraged the establishment of a place to teach the adult blind a trade, separate from the school.
In 1858, several citizens of Vinton began to raise money to bring the school for the Blind to their community. Land was donated and buildings were built in 1860. Soon after, the “College for the blind” was moved to Vinton Iowa, where it remains.
Soon after, an alumni Association was formed by the former students of the institution. During a meeting of the Alumni in June of 1886 at the College for the Blind in Vinton, a long discussion took place on the working conditions and opportunities, or rather the lack thereof, for the graduates of the College for the Blind. Many of the graduates, who had learned some skills at the College, left the school but found no one that would hire them. If they did get employment, it was for far less than they needed to survive. What employment opportunities they had, were mostly made by themselves, becoming their own employer. Many graduates ended up in the county poor house.
Two resolutions were passed at the Alumni meeting in 1886. One resolved that a “Working home for the blind, where suitable handicraft, can be pursued by them, would serve best to aid them, and relieve the public of the burden of their maintenance.” The second resolution called for the Alumni to submit the matter to the General Assembly of Iowa, and ask that the General Assembly work to establish such a “Working Home” so that the blind who live there can work as handicrafts to sustain themselves.
In 1870, a similar effort had been tried previously in Iowa. A bill was introduced in the state legislature that asked for $100,000 be appropriated to buy land, build buildings and establish a home for the blind that would allow the residents to work at such things that would earn them money. It was also to establish a workshop within the facility. A bill did pass the legislature in 1870 to establish a home for the blind, but it only had an appropriation of $2,000. There was no follow-up or action taken after the passage of the bill by the state.
The Alumni appointed a committee of Blind graduates of the college to put together a report on a potential, Industrial Home and go to the State Capitol and talk to members of the General Assembly. This was done and it met with a very favorable response according to newspaper accounts. They took with them a petition signed by many blind and sighted persons calling for a Home for the Blind.
On April 13, 1888, the Iowa General Assembly passed an act that called for the study of this issue. Three commissioners were appointed, one, a woman, was mandated by the act. One blind person was appointed to the commission and that was Miss Mattice, a teacher at the College for the Blind. Commissioners were: L. A. Riley, a Democrat, Colonel D. M. Fox of Des Moines, and Lorana Mattice a teacher at the College for the Blind in Vinton, Benton County, all supposedly experienced in the education of the blind. They were paid $3.00 a day and travel expenses, to carry out their duties and report back to the General Assembly, no later than September 1, 1889.
The Commissioners began writing to several Homes for the Blind across the country and around the world. They sought advice from Superintendents and Directors of institutions for the adult blind, receiving a lot of correspondence from institutions in Oakland CA, Iberia OH and Philadelphia PA. They were quite impressed with the Pennsylvania Home, in part as its Director; H. L. Hall was himself Blind and seemed to be doing a great job of managing the facility. Pennsylvania was purported to be the best facility in the country for blind men to work and earn a living. There, the blind men were earning an annual average wage of over $128. Mr. H. L. Hill was not only the Director, but its founder in 1874, the first of its kind in the country, according to the study of the Iowa Commissioners. They also had letters from Dr. Armitage, Honorable Secretary of the British and Foreign Blind Association.
They traveled to visit several institutions in New York, the Perkins School in Boston MA, the Ontario Institution for the Education and Training of the Adult Blind in Brantford, Ontario, as well as institutions in many of the states surrounding Iowa.
Their conclusion was that a “Home for the Industrial Blind” would be a great asset to the state of Iowa. Many of the homes for the blind cost the state or community very little to maintain as the work done at the homes covered much of the cost of the institution. The Blind of the state where these facilities were located were not poor houses or a Burdon to the community or the blind person’s families or friends as the institution paid a living wage.
So, the Commissioners began to look for a community to house such an institution. Using the ideas from other states, they presented their ideas to many communities, telling them that the idea of an Industrial Home for the Blind was not an experimental idea, but one that had proven to work and work well for all concerned, in many communities across the country. It would not be a financial burden on the community or state. They asked that the community that would host the institution provide land for the Home as well as opportunity for goods to be sold and much more. Competition for the Home took place as many communities saw this as a wonderful addition to their town, bringing jobs and related businesses. The goal was to bring together as many resources as possible to build the Home at no cost to the State of Iowa.
Other recommendations were that the facility be built large, so not to incur additional cost to expand the facility in a few years. They also recommended that women be included in the Home and Industrial component, meaning that they be able to work.
Representative Dayton introduced a bill to establish the Industrial Home for the Adult Blind in late February, 1890. Senator Perry Engle of Newton took up the cause in the Senate. The bill passed both houses. According to the legislation, the purpose of the Home was “To instruct the adult blind of the state who may be admitted, in some suitable trade or avocation in order to enable them to earn their own support or contribute thereto.” In March of 1891, the State appropriated $22,000 for the Home to build the necessary buildings and provide whatever equipment was needed for the Home. There was no money appropriated for the running of the Home once it opened.
In June of 1890, a commission to select the site for the Industrial Home for the Adult Blind was appointed and began its activities. It was chaired by Mr. J. B. Elliott of Knoxville, in Marion County, Iowa. They started out on a tour of the communities bidding for the Home. Their travels took them to Missouri Valley, McGregor, Waverly, Clarion, Mason City, Charles City, Humboldt, Muscatine, Oskaloosa, Carroll, Logan, Newton, Audubon, and Knoxville. Knoxville was selected and the reasons given were that it was decided to be the most economical. There was ready access to raw materials needed for the workshop such as broom corn.
Many at the College for the Blind in Vinton would have liked the home to be located in Vinton. However, they did not want it to be near or on the school grounds. The two institutions served very different purposes for the Blind of the state. The staff and alumni did not want there to be a blurring of the two that could cause the quality of education to suffer at the school or to cause the students to only be placed, or choose to go into the workshop at the home as it was convenient.
Leaders in Knoxville began preparing to secure the site as soon as they heard of the opportunity to land a state institution for the Blind. Judge J. D. Gamble had been approached by city leaders to secure an option for his 40 acre corn field on the edge of Knoxville as the possible site. City leaders raised money to purchase the land from Judge Gamble. Meetings were held among city leaders to strategize and plan to ensure the city’s bid would be accepted.
Newspaper accounts from The Knoxville Journal’s Diamond Jubilee Edition, September 25, 1930, tell how Knoxville put on a grand performance to the members of the commission and their party as they arrived by train. The Knoxville Silver Cornet Band, (all instruments were brass, it was noted) played as the train pulled into town. Commissioner Elliott had arranged for his home community to be the last stop on their journey across the state.
The delegates were escorted all around the city. The band also serenaded the group during their site seeing. They toured the proposed site for the Home. A grand banquet was held at the Lindell Hotel for the dignitaries. Congressman Ed Hays presented all of the reasons and benefits to having the Home for the Industrial Blind in Knoxville to the delegation. Again, the band played a few more classical pieces and the banquet was over. To no surprise, the site selected by Mr. Elliott and the Commission was Knoxville.
According to an article in the Pella Weekly Herald dated January 8 1892, Knoxville donated to the state, 60 acres of land. They also gave the Home for the Blind free water for five years. A bonus of $1,200 was paid by the city, to the state, for giving the cite to the city of Knoxville.
Captain F. S. Whiting got the contract to build the buildings on the property. He oversaw the construction of the main building, a barn, workshop, store house and an ice house. For this, he was paid $29,218.87. Captain and Mrs. Whiting were selected to become the first superintendent and matron of the home and were given a combined salary of $1,500 a year and room and board. Neither of them had any experience with the blind. In March of 1891, the state legislature did approve $23,000 for the operation of the Home.
The commissioners submitted their report to Governor Boles at the end of 1891. They reported on all of their activities and findings. They also recommended an additional $56,500 be authorized for the Industrial Home for the next biennium to build an Ice House, an Electric Plant, supply the orchard, and at least $30,000 for the salaries of the officers and the employees. It is important to note that the employees were the sighted people, not the blind “inmates” of the facility.
One of the Commission’s final statements in their report read as follows; “In organizing this home, we understand its object is to gather together deserving people whose support is now a tax on the community, to teach them useful trades, furnish them with material and employment and pay each what he earns.”
The Industrial Home for the Blind, (IHB) opened January 1 1892 to the Blind of Iowa. A blind person wishing to enter the IHB needed to apply to the board of Trustees, complete a thorough physical and be deemed mentally sound before they were granted permission to become and “Inmate”.
Some of the IHB first residents were; W. H. Ashby (Louisa Co.), A. T. Burdick (Marion co.), John Guinn (Madison Co.) Walter Haines (Polk Co.), William Lavio (Polk Co.), D. C. Newton (Marion Co.), Pat Quilken (Wapello Co.), Louis Schaafer (Jefferson Co.), John D. Thompson (Marion Co.), John D. Taylor (Jefferson Co.) and Eva B. Wood (Linn Co.). Some, such as John Guinn came to the home at a very young age, 20 years old. Some, such as John Taylor were married, but not living with his spouse and therefore could be admitted to the home.
Unlike the sighted workforce, a blind inmate was charged room and board. It was taken out of their wages before the wages were paid to the inmate. Each male inmate was charged $2.25 a week. The women were charged $2.00 a week, which included board, lodging mending, and laundry. A few of the female inmates performed housework for which they were paid 75 cents per week and board. The first year of the IHB’s operation, it was said that a blind inmate earned about $12 a month. By 1897, there were several months when an inmate would earn only about $5-$6 a month. When there was no work in the broom factory, room and board were still added to the debt that each inmate owed the Home. When there was work, an inmate needed to work off the debt before ever collecting any wages from IHB.
One noted item is that the Home would double and triple up the number of residents per room at the home. The room and board did not include a single room. Many times, the IHB would have three men or women to a room and yet, the rent charged each inmate was the same as if there was only one person to a room.
Life at The Home fell into a routine of work and passive recreation. The routine of The Home was described thus. “The inmates are occasionally favored with sermons, lectures and musical and other entertainments, and have been kept posted concerning the current events of the day by readings in the dining-room daily, and an hour in the sitting rooms twice a week regularly. The evening readings in the newspapers were given by Miss Vivian, daughter of the superintendent, and Miss Jesse B. Moore, clerk, who cheerfully volunteered to render this acceptable service. Prayer meeting is held regularly every Monday evening in the ladies’ sitting room.”
A blind man named Albert Mussen took the train to Knoxville in hopes that he could live at the Home. He traveled by himself and found his way to the home. Because he was deaf as well as blind, he was refused admittance to the Home by the superintendent . A deaf-blind person was not able, by the Home’s understanding, be able to work. The Sheriff was called by the Superintendent and took Mr. Mussen back to the train station and put him back onto the next train headed back to his home.
In the spring of 1892, the first board of trustees of the Home for the Industrial Blind were appointed. They were; President, J. H. Nichols, Des Moines , Secretary, L. T. Richmond, Albia and Treasurer, J. B. Elliott, Knoxville, none were blind. The Superintendent for the home was Captain F. S. Whitney from Des Moines. His wife served as Matron. Captain Whitney would only serve for one year and resigned. Seventeen applications were received for the position and Whitney was replace by Democrat, Mr. M. C. Gephardt in August of 1893. Mr. Gephardt was an agent for the “Q” road. His wife also served as Matron of the Home. A man’s party affiliation was noted for every appointment to a high position at the IHB.
During Mr. Gephardt’s tenure, The “inmates” were encouraged to turn over their products for sale to the manager of the broom shop, but were also allowed to sell their wares for themselves. If a blind man chose to sell his wares, the blind were charged a cost price for the broom stock that they bought from the IHB. After the product was finished, they then could sell it at a market price to the IHB who then would sell them for the institution, or the blind broom makers could go out and sell it themselves. Most chose to sell back to the shop as the Home had the sales opportunities sealed up in Knoxville. Mr. Gephardt said that the wages in the shop could be from 30 to 51 cents a day for a man making brooms or nets.
In Mr. Gephardt’s report to the General Assembly in 1895, Mr. Gephardt said” I have not been able to discern any marked difference between our blind workmen and the seeing men of their class. He said that the crop of broom stalk, in 1894 had been a lesser quality because of bad weather, yet the broom makers were able to make over 8,441 dozen brooms, 446 whisk brooms 123 Horse nets and 746 hammocks. They were sold by the Home for $19,950.00.
During the fall of 1893, the inmates harvested and cured over nine acres of broom corn on their land. This made over 3 3/4 ton of broom stalk for the shop. During the fall of 1894, the inmates harvested fourteen acres of broom corn yielding over 4 and 1/4 ton of broom stalk. The inmates also gathered up Indian corn. The sighted staff count was not as large under Mr. Gephardt’s administration and so more of the farming jobs were handled by the inmates allowing for a greater opportunity for the blind to earn a higher wage.
According to an article in the Cedar Rapids Courier Gazette dated September 30, 1895, women inmates, did needlework, beadwork and made hammocks. They too could sell off their products to the IHB or sell on their own. Some of the Female inmates were working in the laundry and kitchen.
A Republican Governor was elected in 1896. As a reward for his service to the newly elected Governor and to the Republican Party, Mayor Cam Culbertson of Knoxville, Chairman of the Marion County Republican Central Committee was selected to become the next Superintendent of the Industrial Home for the Blind. His wife would serve as the Matron. Cam received a salary of $50 a month and room and board for his family that included at least two daughters, Vivian and Bonnie. His wife received $25 a month and room and board for her services. The
Culbertson’s began their service at the home on July 1, 1896. Neither of them had any experience with the blind before this post.
Not all went well for the State of Iowa in relation to its state institutions. Rumors of mismanagement of funds and supplies by many state agencies prompted the Iowa Legislature to Establish a Board of Control in 1897 to bring order, and financial oversight for state funds. the board replaced the boards of Trustee’s, many of these boards were becoming quite a drain on their institutions funding. This board visited all of the state institutions, recommending changes. When visiting the Home for the Industrial Blind, there were many concerns that the Board of Control had regarding the Home. Namely that the treasurer, a bank clerk in Knoxville, had not kept clear records of the institutions finances. According to Mr. Culbertson when asked for the financial records in late 1897, he stated that there was no indication where money went or from what source the money had come to the Industrial Home for the blind.
Yet many news articles would tell a different story. On October 15, 1896, a short news article appeared in The Daily Iowa Capitol stated that the audit committee for the Industrial Home had been completed and that the committee was “well pleased with the work going on”. The audit committee was made up of three of the now, six member board of trustees. It also reported that in September alone, the IHB had shipped over 642 dozen brooms and over 389 dozen whisks. According to an article in the same paper earlier that year, January 18, the Board of Trustees, who’s number was only three people, was paid $1,247.24 for their services for the past year.
Also in July of 1897, Mr. Culbertson’s report and that of the board of trustees for the IHB submitted a detailed Treasurers Report and Financial report to the Governor of the State of Iowa. It included detailed sales and purchase figures going back to 1892. Information about the manufacturing, orchard and the farm were included in the report. There was a detailed list of articles sold as well as a detailed list of supplies on hand. Mr. Culberson and the board of Trustees both quoted figures for expenses that justified their request for additional State support in the next Biennial funding period. Mr. Culbertson states in his report that “Based upon the average number of persons maintained at the home for the period, the average cost of maintenance per month for each inmate, excluding the edible products of the farm, you will note, is $11.39. Deducting amount paid for improvements and house furnishings, the actual cost of maintenance per month for the period for each inmate is $10.17.” Even with such a detailed report earlier that year, but now, not being able to produce any records, the Board of Control’s conclusion was that the institution was just told to keep better financial records. Now, they were to submit, monthly, to the State Treasurer, reports on all income and expenses for the IHB.
Mr. Culbertson also reported they had refurbished the buildings on the property and the beautification of the grounds. A chicken house and a hay barn were built. Forty four acres were being farmed by the Home, yet no indication that any of the blind were employed in the farming of the land. There were no separate categories for the feeding and housing of staff and their families, whose board and room were in addition to their wages. Staff costs such as food, were included in the figures that made up the cost of supporting the inmates and the Home.
Other items were noted in the Board of Control report. A suggestion that the institution purchase its supplies in greater quantity to get a better price for goods and services was strongly recommended. It was discovered that supplies for the Home and all of its staff and inmates were purchased locally and in small quantities on a very frequent basis. A recommendation was that, the institution take advantage of other state institution’s larger purchases and order in greater quantities when the other state agencies in the area placed their orders.
The response from the Industrial Home to the state legislature was that they would combine in the agency books, their funds from three separate funds, down to two funds. They requested $1,000 to install electric lights as this was needed for the safety of the institution and the inmates. They also reduced the salaries of the inmates so as to better balance the budget. Sighted staff salaries were not reduced. There was no indication that they even acknowledged the many suggestions made by the Board of Control. One has to wonder who really benefited from the Industrial Home for the Blind.
Culberson tried to change the image of the home through articles in the press and activities that were read by the public and taken as truth. An article appeared in the Iowa Capitol on September 15, 1897, promoting the Home and its work. The article, entitled, “All roads lead to the big fair”, reads in part: “Of all the exhibits in Producers’ Hall which completely engrossed the attention of the men, woman and children the display of the handiwork from the industrial home for the blind in Knoxville leads. The crowds do not appear to tire of their investigation of the work done by blind hands. From the plain every day article the house broom to the delicate nettings, weavings of thread and mysterious formations into nets and hammocks, the work of the blind excites wonder. Cam Culbertson Superintendent has the exhibit in personal charge. He takes a great interest in the work and in seeing that that all visitors see what the inmates numbering in 57, are accomplishing.”
Not all publicity was favorable to the Home for the Industrial Blind. In the Pella Advertiser on March 13 1897 appeared the following editorial comment. “Knoxville has not had a saloon in many years. Is a temperance town. Yet even the blind of Knoxville get “stone blind” and get all they want. Newspapers report that the blind have a jollification when drunk.”
In an extra session of the legislature in late 1897, an amendment was passed to the legislation governing the IHB. It said that the Home should take in the indigent blind of the state. The Home was not self-sufficient as the State had been lead to believe. Although this did not seem to change things at the Home as the rooms were already at capacity and there was a waiting list of able-bodied blind persons waiting to get in. The men were already being packed in three to a room. In June of 1988 a desperate blind man was found to have a letter from the home in his pocket that said there was no room for him. That blind man went to jail and most likely sent off to an institution for the insane when released.
This may have been what really was the beginning of the end for the Home. Many problems with the blind workers were becoming more difficult and public than the sighted people wanted to deal with. The Blind were demanding that they be paid the same as sighted people. When work was scarce at the IHB, the blind worker’s wages were cut, not the sighted. Marion County would not assist the blind with financial support to pay for things such as clothing. Several articles appeared in many newspapers across the state, asking for donations for money to be sent to the IHB to clothe an inmate from their region. The county made it quite clear to the state and the inmates that the inmates of the IHB were not considered residents of Marion County, rather they should be supported by the county that sent them to the Home. Some of the inmates had been in residence at the home since January of 1892, yet were still not welcome by Marion County by 1897. Unlike other institutions, the “inmates” had come of their own free will to the Home and were not placed there by their home county.
Other problems in the city of Knoxville began to surface. Townspeople did not want the blind in their city anymore. Until 1897, the Blind and the Home were a welcomed addition to the town. Suddenly, they were not. According to the statements of income and expenses that were required to be submitted each month during 1898 and 1899 to the Iowa State Auditor, brooms and other products made at the home were not purchased by any townspeople or local businesses. An interesting switch
The biggest concern that the townspeople had with the blind in their city is that the blind wanted to marry. As the blind were not wards of the state and were not placed at the IHB, but came of their own free will, they could not be prohibited from marrying. If the blind inmates married, they had to leave the Home. Sighted staff who were married lived on the grounds with their spouses and families, but the blind could not. When the blind did marry, they were forced to move into the town of Knoxville. But no one would rent to them. So they built their own homes. Most of these homes were made of scrap, cardboard and would not be considered livable my any standards today.
Some of the blind people had learned to make hammocks while attending the College for the Blind at Vinton. Many, especially the women, made the needle work and hammocks that were sold by the home. Again, as in the broom shop, the blind had to purchase the supplies themselves from the Home. Hammock making was not part of the broom shop. The blind made the hammocks and were supposed to give them to the Home to sell. Many of the blind people did not do so. They chose to sell them by themselves and get all of the profits. This was a practice once again, discouraged by the Home as the Home could not keep track of what the “inmate’ had made.
Ledgers show that the IHB staff kept track of all of the income that a blind person made, no matter if they lived at the IHB or if they just worked in the shop. The ledgers reflected what outside income the “inmate” had and from where. Some of the blind people earned extra money playing for the community churches and such. They were required to report it to the administration of the home by rule, not law.
Culbertson was not liked by the blind at the IHB. A petition was circulated and signed by the blind and several people from the Knoxville area asking Governor Shaw to cause an investigation of the Home to be done by the Board of Control. It alleged that while intoxicated, Cam Culbertson would abuse the blind inmates of the Home. It also said that there was mismanagement of the funds for the manufacture of brooms. The money appropriated by the legislature that was to last for two years, was nearly exhausted after only one year.
Walter C. Haines, a blind man that had been a former resident and supposedly fired from the Industrial Home for “good cause” was the spokesman for the group. Upon receipt of the petition, Governor Shaw immediately sent the chair of the Board of Control, William Larrabee and former Governor, John Cownie to Knoxville to investigate the claims in the petition. Most articles said that the reason for the visit was to investigate the claims. But according to an article in The Iowa Capitol, January 23, 1899, the trip was to investigate the closing of the manufacturing plant and to close the home as the money that had been appropriated for the running of the manufacturing plant had been exhausted after only one year.
A Knoxville paper, not the Express had earlier printed the petition and sided with the blind from the Industrial Home. The Knoxville Express was quoted in The Iowa Capitol on February 4, 1899 saying that the editor of the other Knoxville paper had given “undue circulation by the editor”.
Numerous articles appeared in papers all across the state exonerating Cam Culbertson of all the charges. The articles all reported that all was well at the home and it was in fine financial shape. The articles said that the blind man that caused all the fuss had been re-instated as an inmate at the home. Culbertson reported to the Board of Control that Haines had been let go for disorderly conduct and insubordination. He also mentioned in that report that the residents of the home were mostly well behaved. But when there was no work, “there are occasions that call for the exercise of authority”. The home did have a solitary confinement practice that was said to last for only a few days or so and then the blind person was returned to the Home’s regular routine.
What was not reported in the press was that broom making in Iowa had not been profitable for any state institution for very long time. At a meeting of the Board of Control in the early part of 1899, several of the participants representing other agencies and institutions in Iowa, brought this to the attention of the board when Mr. Culbertson tried to gain support for a requirement that all state agencies purchase brooms from the blind, no matter the cost. They still had broom making equipment on site at several state agencies and did make brooms for their agencies as part of a learning program for their inmates or students. Culbertson said that the brooms made by his shop were just as good as any other. Yet other members of the Board of Control pointed out that other state institutions here making brooms that had a hard wood handle and could be used over and over again. The brooms at the IHB were all made of the straw and the whole broom was to be tossed out when the broom whisks were used up.
At the meeting of the Board of Control in 1899, Cam Culbertson presented his report to the Board for the past year. Mr. Thomas F. McCune, Principal of the College for the Blind, long supported the idea of an Industrial Home for the Blind, if it was managed more like a business. He also stated that only one industry was not a good idea for such an agency. He stated to the state legislature “You cannot educate them for any one set of circumstances, but you can educate them to control circumstances.” He gave examples of graduates from the College who had gone on to be teachers, lawyers and such. Culberson was politely challenged by others as well. Mr. Culbertson defended himself by saying that the institution had many financial mismanagement issues, but that was all before he came. In 1897, a new foreman with experience in broom making had been hired and the quality of the brooms had increased. He stated that the wages of the inmates had been adjusted to help balance the books for the shop. What he meant was the blind had a reduction in wages. A request for additional funds to be given to the Industrial Home to clothe the inmates was also asked for as the inmates were to support themselves out of the wages paid to them by the broom shop. The inmates could purchase the clothing from the home and it would be charged against their accounts. Cam Culbertson, in the same report, also asked that his wages be brought in line with that of the College for the blind. He asked that his wages be increased from $50 a month to $100. Other staff wages would also be increased. An interesting way to balance the budget.
The blind were not easily appeased by Culbertson’s reports. Again a delegation of the blind converged on the state capitol, led by Mr. Haines. They came to visit the legislature from January 21-24, 1900. They talked to members of the legislature and the Board of Control regarding their concerns about the Home and their needs as blind workers.
By 1900, the state legislature had had their fill of the Industrial Home for the Blind and all of the troubles it had raised for the state of Iowa. All of the financial troubles, broken promises and still the personal needs of the blind inmates were not being met. By 1898, many citizens of Knoxville had begun to lobby the state legislature to convert the Industrial Home for the Blind into a “normal school.” A Normal School in that time period was a school offering a two-year course and certification to high-school graduates preparing to be teachers, especially in the elementary-schools.
In January of 1900, Representative Warren from Marion County introduced a bill that, he said, would bring the first Normal School to the state of Iowa. (There had been other Normal Schools in Iowa for over 30 years.) His bill, of course recommended that the site of the Industrial Home be used for this purpose. Suggestions for moving the blind inmates to the “Asylum in Vinton or the school for the Blind in Council Bluffs (this was the School for the Deaf) was recommended by the people of Knoxville, but not placed in the legislation. On February 22, 1900, an editorial entitled Injustice to Blind, appeared in The Daily Iowa Capitol. It reported that the bill to abolish the Industrial Home for the Blind had passed the committee on appropriations. It allowed up to $2,000 to send the inmates back to their home counties AND to hire a custodian to watch over the property for up to two years.
The article goes on to say that the home only had a total of thirty five inmates. And that each inmate would be given a train ticket home and $5. Because of the manufacturing being done on the site, the home could not be closed immediately. That after the orders had been filled and supplies used up, the home would be closed and the property abandoned.
Michael Keating, an inmate of the Home testified to the state legislature that $5 would not be enough to send off the blind people from the Home. He said that $5 would barely pay for one weeks lodging in the town they would be sent to. Blind people had come to the Industrial Home because they had no place to go. They had no home to go back to. He recommended $100 be given to each blind person so they could establish themselves, be it a place to stay or to become a peddler of hammocks in the streets.
Over a year later, a different story was presented in the newspaper. Many articles would give a similar account to this article that appeared in the Semi-Weekly Iowa State reporter, Dec 20, 1901, page 2.
Semi-Weekly Iowa State reporter Dec 20 1901 page 2
“Blind Folks would Wed
Caused Abandonment of the State home for Indigent Blind
Cedar Rapids, Dec. 14—Hon. John Cownie of the state board of control explained the abandonment of the institution for the blind at Knoxville in an interview in the Cedar Rapids Gazette
Mr. Cownie referred to the abandonment by the State, of the State Home for the Aged and Indigent Blind people at Knoxville. Most cities and towns are anxious to secure the location of state and national institutions as they are to acquire factories and mills. But after Knoxville had secured her prize and given it a fair trial, she asked for its removal and that with the least possible delay. It brought her an evil she did not expect and one that she desired wholly extirpated the home at Knoxville was designed for the care and support of the indigent blind and not for the propagation of the human species. The latter finally became the chief industry. Blind men and women came from all parts of the state and after having associated together for a time in the home would be seized with an inordinate desire to double up in matrimony. Marriage was not fully discouraged among these unfortunates by the management of the home, but was absolutely forbidden if the nuptial candidates were expected to remain within the hospitable wall of the comfortable home. But this prohibition was without avail and was void and of no effect. The men and woman would marry and of course and were required to depart from the institution. The invariable result was that they located in Knoxville were thrown upon the generosity of the town or country for support and eked out a miserable existence. They colonized in a certain quarter of Knoxville, where there was a collection of the most un-picturesque and dilapidated huts ever seen in the country. Most of these habitations were constructed by the newly married themselves and out of the greatest variety of materials, several varieties being found in each. They became foul with filth, dirt and refuse. It became a veritable pest and when it could no longer be tolerated the people of Knoxville arose in their majesty and power and protested to the legislature. After protesting several times to the lawgivers heard the cry in the wilderness and ordered the abandonment of the home.”
Looking through the state records and newspaper accounts, there were only six inmates that were registered as being married. This would be less than 15% of the IHB population at any time. Never were records found that indicated that the blind inmates had children depending on them. There was no indication that the claims in the news article that the chief industry was the "propagation of the human species."
Mr. Cownie was quoted in many news articles that cast the blind in the most unfavorable light. In the May 3, 1900 edition of the Summer Gazette, he commented on the closing of the Home. Cownie stated “It never had to exceed 52 members and most of the time only about 40. The expense of caring for these 40 blind persons not including interest on the investment but only actual appropriations, was nearly $200 per capita per year.” He went on to say that “Blind people are very hard to get along with and manage. They are of a jealous disposition, owing to their infirmity. And yet they have as much natural feeling as a seeing person.” He seemed surprised that the blind people behaved as if they could see. He seemed to expect the blind to be happy being put away in a home where the well-paid staff could take care of them.
The site of the Industrial home remained vacant till 1902 when the buildings were opened as a State Hospital for the Inebriates. $125,000 was appropriated from the state legislature that year, to open the hospital in Knoxville. As the inmates of the hospital would break out and caused the townspeople a lot of grief, Knoxville soon had the state institution in their fair city closed, again. On August 21, 1920, the buildings were reopened as a hospital for disabled veterans. There was a bed capacity of 171 at that time and 125 of the beds were filled immediately. In 1922, the Federal Government purchased the 345 acres, buildings and greenhouse for $200,000.00 from the State of Iowa for a hospital under the Veterans Administration. At the close of 2009, much of the VA hospital was being merged with the Des Moines location. A community-based, out-patient clinic still remains.
The Home for Sightless Women opened in Des Moines Iowa, on September 1, 1915. But that is not the beginning of the story of the Home. For many years, Blind men and women tried to establish a Home for the Blind in Iowa to live and become self-sufficient. Their hope was to build a home, run by the blind where each could start their own business or have a place to bring in work for themselves so they could earn their own way and become self-sufficient.
Iowa has a long history of progressive ideas and programs for the blind. The vast majority of which came from the blind themselves through collective action. In the early 1880’s, blind students and staff of the Iowa College for the blind in Vinton Iowa (now known as the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Handicapped) formed an alumni association, known as the Iowa Association for the Blind, (IAB). Later, in the early 1910’s, the association opened its membership to all blind persons in the state, regardless if they had graduated or not from the College for the Blind. Its members were energetic, forward-thinkers and willing to put their treasure and talent where their hearts led them.
Each year, around graduation time at the College for the Blind, the alumni would gather to meet the new graduates and renew old friendships, as well as address the current issues and the substantial problems of the blind in Iowa. They reached outside the boarders of the state to learn from other blind leaders and to bring to the state new hope and ideas for the adult blind to make a comfortable living.
One of the major concerns of the students and staff of the school in 1880 was the lack of jobs waiting for graduates of the school after graduation. The College for the Blind provided an education for its pupils that was above the educational levels achieved by most of the children of Iowa at that time. Yet, the educational advantage did not translate into better jobs for many reasons. One of those reasons was a lack of housing options. Many landlords had huge misconceptions about blindness and would not rent to a blind person because they felt that the blind tenant would burn down their property, be too poor to pay the rent, not be able to care for their rooms, be too much of a burden for the landlord to handle and the list goes on. As this was assumed to be factual, there were no laws to prevent a landlord from discrimination against a blind person in housing at that time.
Through the Alumni organization, (IAB) from the College for the Blind in Vinton, they met with some success in the early 1890’s, but the state-run home quickly became a problem for the Blind who lived there and for the state as well. The Industrial Home for the Blind in Knoxville Iowa, was run by sighted persons with a broom shop that most of the residents were only allowed to work for meager wages. The IHB was closed in only 8 years. But this did not stop those dedicated Blind men and women from trying again.
In 1904, the Iowa Association of the Blind filed a complaint with the State of Iowa hoping to prevent the buildings in Knoxville Iowa that had once belonged to the IHB, be changed into the Hospital for the Inebriates. They once again asked that the state build a home for the Industrial pursuits of the Blind of Iowa. They also asked for the $5,700, raised by the blind of the state and given to the State of Iowa for the home, be returned to them. Their calls for support of the blind fell on deaf ears.
In August of 1907, several Blind people from the IAB filed incorporation papers with the Polk County Recorder’s office to form a new organization with only one purpose. The Home for Sightless Women Association was born in Des Moines. Many of the prominent leaders in the IAB, were the new association’s founding members such as Lorania Mattice-Jordan, a blind graduate of the College for the blind and one of its lead blind teachers for decades. The group hired D. C. Newton, a blind man, to travel the state and to solicit funds from businesses and individuals across the state. Many of the Blind men and women of the Association for the Blind also solicited the communities they were visiting as volunteers. Later, Phalla Hinckley, also blind, took to traveling across the state during several months of 1913, to raise the necessary funds for the home. The first public contribution for the Home for Sightless Women was $10 made by Ella Eaton in 1907.
As late as 1911, the Alumni Association tried again to ask the state legislature to appropriate money for a home for blind women to live and to work. The Iowa State legislature never appropriated any funds towards this effort that year or any other. At the beginning of the 20th century, very few nursing homes in Iowa allowed blind women in as they were felt to be too much work for the staff. If blind women did not have family to care for them, many ended up in poor houses where they received no assistance at all.
Members of the Home for Sightless Women Association were frustrated with their public relations and fundraising efforts. It was hoped that more of the general public would wish to champion their cause. This was not so. Some of their blind members were active in the Des Moines Society, made up of primarily educated women of a high social standing. The blind women felt that such membership would draw in the sighted residents of Des Moines, and hopefully, across the state. Soon the blind women realized that the enthusiasm for the project was waning with its sighted leaders.
In 1912, the Aid Society for the Home for Sightless Women was formed. It consisted of several of the Blind women who were hoping to build the home as well as some of the prominent women of Des Moines. This group acted as an advisory board and major fundraising component to the Home for Sightless Women Association. The first was run by the prominent sighted women of the area and some of the Blind people. The latter was run by the blind of Iowa. Its President for many years was Mr. L. E. Howard, a successful piano tuner and musician in Des Moines. Adelia Hoyt, member of both groups, blind herself, traveled in many of the University women circles and was able to draw in many of the city’s prominent women to help build the committee and raise funds for the home. The two groups met together many times at various locations around the city including the Central State Bank.
These sighted women would have garden and cocktail parties with their friends and raise money from their guests for the Home. Mrs. E. P. Woreaster, a sighted socialite, lived at 2320 East 14th Street. She held a garden party for the Aid Society on August 8, 1912, that was most successful in its fundraising efforts. That same year, Mrs. Warren Garst who lived at 4001 West Grand Ave. did the same. Being the wife of a former Iowa Governor, she had a lot of influence in Iowa to help her become one of the Aid Society’s best fundraisers during the first few years. Mrs. Channey Artis, 1051 17th Street, Des Moines often opened her home to the Aid Society for meetings and functions. She served as a media spokesman for the Society in the newspapers across the city and state. Mrs. Frank C. Waterbury was the Treasurer. She lived at 51st and Ingersoll Ave and had many of the contributions that came from across the state, sent to her home. Mrs. Ralph Plumb, held a “ladies” luncheon at the Harris-Emery Tea Room in September of 1915. Only 12 guests were invited to the exclusive event. Other prominent sighted women who made contributions of time and talent, as well as treasure, included; Mrs. J. D. Whisenand, Mrs. David H. Buxton, Mrs. Byron S. Henry, Mrs. C. E. Hunn and Mrs. George E. King
The Aid Society for the Home for Sightless Women would meet separately, at the homes of the society women to plan activities, conduct business and educate new recruits. Many of the meetings were fundraisers in and of themselves.
One of the Aid Society’s first projects were postcards. Pictures of the residence that had been purchased were taken and made into post cards. The women, sold and distributed the post cards for promotional purposes far and wide. One of the pictures showed the three story house on a large lot with no neighbors and lots of trees. While the other photo showed the home from another angle and one neighboring house. Both cards highlighted the large front porch.
The Home for Sightless Women Association held its own fundraisers as well. Each year, for several years in the 1910’s and 20’s, the blind of the state would donate rugs, baskets, embroidery, knitting, aprons, towels and other goods made by the blind of the state. Many years, Eva A. Whitcomb, a graduate of the College for the Blind, would coordinate the efforts, gathering the goods and overseeing the sale. A week long fundraiser would be held in the Wilkins Brothers store, on the third floor. Each year, the store would donate the space and help promote the bazaar in the papers. Articles were placed in the newspaper asking for funds to be sent to Eva Whitcomb, 1202 28th Street.
The ten room house That became the first Home for Sightless Women, was first purchased in 1912, and paid for in January of 1914, at a cost of $6,200. It was located at 1424 30th Street, at 30th and Forrest Ave, near Drake University. The mortgage was paid off on March 1, 1914, but there was much more fundraising to be done to ensure that the Home could be self-sufficient. Applications for residency at the home were already coming in and the Aid Society redoubled its efforts to bring this project about.
Just as the predicament of the blind was not important enough for the state law makers to act on the blind’s requests for aid, the home was not newsworthy enough to have articles in the news sections of the paper. Rather any reference to the Home for Sightless Women was in the Society section of the newspapers and highlighted the efforts of the society women and not the cause of the Blind.
One exception to this was when the neighbors of the Home for sightless Women tried to prevent the opening of the home. Eighteen residents of the neighborhood of 30th and Forest went to the Des Moines City Council to protest the home. They said that such a home and the infirmed that would live there would lower their property value. The city council gave the matter to the City Law Department. No further action was recorded in the newspaper about the matter.
The Home opened on September1, 1915, There were nine women who became residents of the home that day. Eva Whitcomb, who had been working on the establishment of the home for over a decade, was named its superintendent. This became her home as well. The overall community was very generous to the new neighbors on the day of the opening. Guests brought gifts of food, flowers, dishes and items such as a sewing machine, electric vacuum cleaner, lawn mower and more. Some of these included the same neighbors who tried to prevent the opening of the home.
The neighbors by and large proved to be very supportive of the home. In October of 1918, the Rev. D. J. Bunce. Who lived at 1511, 30th Street, Hosted a donations party at his home. Guests were asked to bring a gift for the Home. Food, clothing and household goods were gathered together at the Rev. Bunce’s home. Then after refreshments, they all walked down to the Home for Sightless Women and presented the gifts the residents and staff.
In the early years, those that wanted to enter the Home for Sightless women had to pay an entrance fee of $500. This entrance fee meant that a resident would have a lifetime home, medical care and burial costs covered. The fee in no way covered all of the expenses of running the home. Each woman was to have a physical before entering into the Home to ensure that the women could be productive and help with the upkeep and chores around the home. Private funds established and supported the operation of the Home for many years.
In the first couple of decades of the Home’s existence, it was the gathering place for many visits and meetings of the blind. Teachers from the school for the blind would come and stay for a few days or a few weeks, visiting their former students and attending meetings of the meetings of the blind of Iowa, held in Des Moines.
In 1920, Eva still lived in the Home. She must have not received much of a salary for her title as she had to ask the Polk County Welfare board for financial support in May of 1916, but it was not granted. Mrs. John Cisna was the matron. There were four other women living in the house at that time. Miss, Bessie M. Parker, Hennis Thies, Amanda Burnhart and Mary Harter. Bessie was the youngest “inmate” of the Home at the age of 32. Eva was 55 at the time. All the other women were in the 60’s or 70’s, making this more of an old persons home, not a place to help start ones career.
By 1928, the home had established an endowment fund of $18,000, that helped to support the home, yet this would not be enough to support those women who moved in. The project was not in vogue with the Des Moines Society clubs. Grants for funding were written, but soon, the board turned to government support once again. The Home itself as well as its residents, was receiving funds from the City of Des Moines Welfare board by 1930. The endowment fund was made up of generous contributions from such places as the estate of Mrs. Eliza Westbrook of Murray, who left $1,000 for the Home in her will in 1921. Of course, each year, the Iowa Association of the Blind contributed funds for the home.
In 1928, the President of the board of the Home for Sightless women Mr. L. E. Howard, a blind piano tuner in Des Moines, told the press that the Home had many applications from women across the country that wanted entrance into the home as blind women across the country faced the same discrimination as did the blind women of Iowa. But the home could not accommodate many of the requests, putting Iowa blind women ahead of others.
By 1930, Catherine Cisna had hired a servant to come and live at the Home to help with the daily chores. She was a widow, former teacher at the College for the blind and elderly herself. Mrs. Cisna did not have a pension from teaching as is the case today in many schools. The job at the home offered a small paycheck and a place to live with the residents, some her former students.
Eight women were considered lodgers there. All were listed as unemployed, holding no job to help support them. Not all were coming from the school for the Blind at Vinton any more. One of the residents in 1930, Samuella Cook, came from Tennessee. She had attended the School For the Blind in Tennessee and after leaving the school, went to live with her sister, but ended up in the Home for Sightless Women by 1930. Most of the women that lived at the home, never married and had little in the way of family support. Others were widowed and had nowhere else to turn.
The first recorded matron of the Home, was Miss Ella Phillips from Davenport Iowa. She took the post in April of 1917, but only lasted about one year. In 1918, Catherine Cisna became the matron at the Home for sightless women. She served in that position for 15 years until her death in April of 1933. Catherine was 70 at the time of her death. She had been an instructor at the College for the Blind and much loved by the women she taught. Catherine was blind and served as a role model for the women. One of the last matrons, mid 1960’s was Mrs. George Patterson, a sighted woman.
As the home was to have been a place of employment opportunities, it would make sense that persons such as Mrs. Cisna were hired to help jump-start the careers of these financially-strapped blind women. However, many of the women coming to the home were graduates of the College for the Blind in Vinton, where many had received training in trades. They came to the home because they did not have opportunities to put them to work. Catherine’s influence and encouragement did not seem to make a difference in their employment outcomes after coming to the Home.
By 1934, the home had many more residents than it could accommodate. This may have been due to the tough economic times in the state. A much larger home at 2343 East 8th Street was rented from the Iowa Children’s Home Society. The rent was negotiated at $1 a year as long as the Home for Sightless Women would care and keep up the property. This was a three story brick structure, many times larger than the previous location.
In 1948, the home again moved to 1420 Pennsylvania Ave. this was the former home of Frank and Daisy Green, a couple that were also active in the women’s groups in the Des Moines community. Interestingly, the property at the turn of the 20th century was the home of the Salvation Army, Home for Women and Girls
Many former teachers and students from the College for the Blind visited friends at the home over the many years. Some would stay for a week or so. Mrs. McCune, the widow of the former principal of the College for the Blind frequented the home during its first many years to visit with former students.
The home was meant to be a place where blind women could live and also earn a living. A job that the matron’s such as Mrs. Cisna and Miss Whitcomb took on was the bringing in of work for the women to help jumpstart a career. Fancy work was brought in for the blind women to keep them busy and to gain some skills in hopes that they would be able to get out into the job market. Yet, rarely did a woman leave the home because she had become self-supporting.
During the 1940’s the home also served as a gathering place for the coordinated and growing, national blind movement. Joe DeBoer, Secretary of the newly formed National Federation of the Blind and head of the Employment Committee, came down from Minneapolis and held one of the many Employment Committee meetings at the Home. The Home had a national reputation as an employment idea that should work. Mr. DeBoer’s committee’s focus of the meeting was to lay out strategies to get blind people employed in private work, not sheltered shops. At that meeting, telegrams were sent from the group to many influential government officials asking for advances in employment options for the blind, including a telegram to the WPA strongly encouraging the government to employ blind persons in the war effort work all across the country.
The Women’s Clubs of Iowa helped to raise money for the Home for decades, by selling towels, table cloths and aprons that were made by blind people, many of them, residents of the Home for Sightless Women. The Iowa Commission for the blind bought sewing machines for the Home for Sightless Women and showed some of the women how to use the machines. The Commission would bring the supplies over for the women to sew and then pick them up when the items were finished. Some of the Women employed at this made what was said to be “good” income, but nowhere does it ever indicate that a blind woman made enough to be self-sufficient. Clubs such as the Hawarden Woman’s Club would sell the items made by the blind women at their bake sales and through their businesses each year, sending the money to the Iowa Commission for the Blind. The Commission then gave the blind women a portion of the money received.
Other local charity groups that would take on projects and visit at the home included many churches, the Telephone Pioneers, Lions Clubs and school groups. These groups primarily planned parties and social outings for the residents.
During the 1960’s the Roosevelt Girls Club Service Committee made the Home for Sightless Women a favorite project of theirs. Two Saturdays each month, members of the service committee would come to the Home and visit with the residents. The girls would read for the women, write letters for them, take the residents for walks and run errands. The Roosevelt Girls Club would also put on a party for the residents at the home, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The girls would also plan a picnic in the spring for the residents.
But by the beginning of the 1960’s, the home had to address the declining enrollment issue and declining residence. The home needed more money for repairs and such. They decided to allow men to enter the home in 1961. However, this was not enough. By 1967, the Home for Sightless Women was closed and the residents moved into Wesley Acres on Grand Ave. . The home on Pennsylvania Ave. was torn down and the Riverview Oaks Apartments were built.
Over the years, many prominent Iowa citizens served on the board of directors for the Home for Sightless women. Some of them included, Ross Carroll, President of Des Moines Title Co. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President of the National Federation of the Blind and Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, Mrs. Edward Valle, Mrs. Rex Ramsey, Harry Watts, Sidney Smith, Mrs. G. A. Stouffer, Mrs. John Graham, Mrs. Roy Ellers, Mrs. John Crandall, Mrs. Donald Carter and Mrs. O. E. Raffensberger
Many of the residents lived at the home for decades. One such woman was Ella Christie. She became a resident of the Home for Sightless Women in 1926. She lived there until her death in October of 1957. Another was Goldie D. Jones. She became a resident of the home in 1928 at the age of 23. Goldie passed away in May of 1964, from cancer at the age of 59, never being self-supporting.
Within a decade or so of the Home’s opening, the home dropped its high entrance fee. Most of the residents over the remaining years of the Home were not economically secure upon entering. They were the women that, had it not been for the home, would have had nowhere else to go and live in dignity. Other efforts of the IAB to improve the lives of the blind in the state of Iowa over the decades, opened other doors that made it possible for blind women to get jobs and live on their own, thus making the home more of a last resort.
Some of the last residents of the home included; Margaret Warren who was deaf- blind , Rhea Mote, Ethel Dale, and Mary Hoffman.
From the NFB OF MN, 75TH ANNIVERSARY COMPILATION
In the early 1900’s, blind people found it very difficult to strike out on their own and find a place to live. If a blind person wanted to rent an apartment, he or she often was restricted to the first floor and required to live with a sighted person—that is, if the apartment were rented at all. On May 27, 1920, a group of forward looking blind people came together to improve the quality of
life for all blind Minnesotans.
They formed a statewide organization called the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind (M.S.O.B, today’s National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota). Their goals were to build an industrial center owned and managed by blind persons where blind persons could start and build up their own businesses and to pass a Blind Pension bill.
In August of 1924, the organization purchased a 6-acre piece of land on the northwest corner of Como and Eustis Street just outside the St. Paul city limits. In the fall of 1925, they began construction. On October 19, 1929, the Home and Industrial Center for the Blind was finally opened.
This building was the centerpiece for the organization. Not only did it house businesses for many residents and members, but it was also the organization’s headquarters.
For many years, fund raising events and entertainment functions took place weekly at the Home. There was a beautiful picnic ground on the property where basket socials, ice cream socials, concerts and other events were held.
Two additions were made to the building throughout the years. The first was a three-story wing completed in April 1949. It housed additional sleeping rooms, a library and an auditorium. The second addition was completed in November of 1961. It added a full second story to, and remodeled the first floor of, the original building.
When blind people came to the Twin Cities to look for work, they could always find a place to stay at the Home, be it for one night or for one year. The rent included meals and laundry service. When the Home first opened, the rent was $7 per month. But a few weeks after the Home opened, the Depression hit and the rent was reduced to $5.
The Home was host to Piano Tuner Clinics. Since piano tuning was one of the few employment opportunities for blind people, the M.S.O.B. began purchasing supplies in bulk at a much lower cost and passed the savings on to blind tuners. The organization housed tuners’ supplies and tools at the Home, and provided space for training so blind persons could find employment as piano tuners.
By the 1960’s, the Home was less of a centerpiece for the activities of the organization. The progress of the M.O.B. (“State” had been dropped from the name to avoid confusion with the government agencies) in its many legislative activities had made integration into the mainstream of society a reality in many areas. The focus began shifting strongly toward improving the opportunity for blind people to obtain meaningful employment in the community. More and more, the meetings and seminars of the organization were held at locations in the community. Blind persons were increasingly accepted in the general community and more often chose to go to entertainment functions outside the Home.
The Home became more of a residence for older persons. It was not uncommon for the Home to be only half full. This became a major drain on the resources of the organization. Talk of selling the Home began as early as 1964.
In the 1970’s, a younger group of persons joined the organization. They found it odd that an organization promoting integration found it necessary to operate what amounted to a segregated home for the blind. The organization changed its name to National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to reflect its wider involvement and changing emphasis. By 1978, clearly the Home represented an unwarranted drain on the resources of the organization. But it was not until 1980 that the Home was finally closed. The property was sold in 1981 to Group Health, an Insurance program with other property nearby. The property now belongs to the Children’s home Society. The Home itself has been torn down. A parking lot now sits where the Home Stood.
The Home and Center was a historical landmark, showing us just how far the organized blind
movement has come since 1920. When it was built, blind persons could not find housing that they would be permitted to manage independently. Today, we take it for granted that blind people can live in mainstream housing along with sighted members of the community. This is due to the drive and forethought of the founders of our organization. When a need existed for the Home, they raised the funds and pulled together the know how to build and maintain it. When the need for the Home disappeared, leaders of the NFB of Minnesota used their drive and
talent to guide the energies of the organization into other channels.
From the NFB OF MN, 75TH ANNIVERSARY COMPILATION
A quality education for all blind children and adults, whether in a public school setting or at the state school for the blind, has always been of concern to the organized blind movement. The generation coming up is the future and hope for the current generation.
The Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault (now known as the State Academy for the Blind) has been the primary concern of the organization over most of our history. For nearly 100 years, the school was the only effective means of educating blind children.
This special school for the blind was established to teach blind children because local schools could not do so. Sighted teachers had no training in Braille or other needed skills, and the number of blind children was too low to justify hiring special teachers in each school district.
A good working relationship existed between our organization and the Braille and Sight Saving School during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. The school provided high-quality education based on Braille and high expectations for its students. Treatment of the blind staff persons also was important. John C. Lysen, superintendent of the school, hired competent blind teachers and paid them the same salary as the sighted staff members. The school attracted blind educators that were active in the blind community. Many of them were active members of our organization and some were elected to the Board of Directors. By 1960, State Services for the Blind was discouraging parents from sending their blind children to the state school. In one case, a blind child’s blind parents (who were also members of this organization) were determined to send their daughter to Faribault. Our Board of Directors advocated for the blind parents and went as far as to ask Governor Rolvaag to intervene. He did and the young girl went to Faribault.
It was not that the organization felt that blind children would always get a better education at Faribault. However, it believed the parents should choose where their child would be educated.
The organization was always ready to testify and lend support to the school whenever the idea of merging the school with the School for the Deaf was brought up. It seemed like about every 15 to 20 years, someone would want to merge the school or do away with it all together.
By the 1980’s, educational options were broadening for blind children. Some were deciding to attend private schools. In one case, the Board of the NFBM helped a family who was unable to get more than one hour of braille a week for their son at a private school. The Federation suggested alternatives that would clear up the private vs. public school problem, so the two systems could cooperate to provide the best education for the blind child.
Today, local school districts educate blind children. Each child is a separate case and receives widely varying quality of instruction. We face an ongoing struggle to ensure basic literacy. Many teachers have only minimal Braille skill and some have low expectations of their blind students.
Our major educational focus over the past decade has been the Braille Literacy Law passed in 1987. This law is supposed to ensure that every legally blind child in the state is given the opportunity to learn Braille. We have worked to strengthen the law to ensure that its intent was fulfilled. The Legislature is currently considering a teacher-competency standard to ensure that the teachers who teach Braille know how to read and write it proficiently. As well as educating children, the Braille and Sight Saving School was for many years the only source of education for newly blinded adults. A summer program was held for many years for adults to learn or brush up blindness skills. The summer program began in 1907 and ran until 1963, and our conventions were planned around the summer-school schedule.
The summer program was stopped after the Minneapolis Society for the Blind rehabilitation program was established. However, many blind people felt that the programs offered at the state school were far better than those offered at the Society. At the annual convention in 1966, resolution 04 was passed, calling for the reinstatement of the summer school program at the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School.
From the NFB OF MN, 75TH ANNIVERSARY COMPILATION
When we hear the word “technology” today, most of us think of high tech computers, Braille printers, talking note takers, and many devices that talk to us and do everything but empty the dishwasher. The founders of our organization were concerned with new and beneficial technology as well. But today, we would probably consider it “low tech”.
The white cane was the first example of the interest in new technologies that would help blind persons become first-class citizens. You might be interested to know what a cane cost. In 1935 a white cane about three feet long cost 15 cents or 25 cents if it had already been painted white. In 1952 the cost of a cane was advertised as 65 cents. They have gone up a little in price since then. At the June 3, 1933 Board of Directors meeting, President Otto Grey told of the Talking Book Machine that he was going to see at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind the next week. Later that year, the Board purchased three talking book machines from the American Foundation for the Blind for use by members and residents at the Home. The first talking book machine was released by the Library of Congress in April of 1934.
Although the talking book machine was a welcome addition to the reading choices for blind persons, many members were concerned that this would be thought of as a replacement for Braille materials. Resolution 34-04, introduced by Christopher Easton, addressed the importance of Braille as a basic reading skill and encouraged continuing funding for Braille periodicals and other Braille material. Mr. Easton reported that the growing popularity of Talking Books had already caused a decline in the production of Braille publications.
The Minnesota Bulletin (NFB of MN publication) ran many articles and announcements about new technology for the blind. Articles concerning anything from new Braille writers and watches to glass eyes and writing guides were frequent. Sources for more information were listed as well as the cost for the items and how to get them.
Before all the high tech came on the scene, Federationists were inventive with their ideas so they could keep up with their sighted co-workers. Early computer programmers in our affiliate used a thin piece of elastic across the pins of a printer to produce Braille output for their jobs.
In the early ’70’s technology for the blind took off. Members brought to the organization all the information they could find on new ideas and items. Many items were shown at conventions. Members would also show their new devices in the back of the room or in the hall between sessions. At the summer quarterly meeting in August of 1975, a new talking calculator was introduced and demonstrated. This eight-digit eight-function calculator cost only $565—a bit out of most individuals’ price range.
At first, as in the general computer world, most technology was for business purposes. It was much too bulky and expensive for an individual to own. Attention was focused on the providers of services for the blind to set up new technologies that would speed up the production of Braille material. Resolution Q73-02 encouraged the application of computer technology at State Services for the Blind (SSB) to improve services to those who read Braille. A committee was formed to work on this issue with Stan Potter, Director of SSB. This turned out to be the most popular committee in the organization with more members asking to serve on it.
When the Optacon first came out, it was believed by the professionals that this too would replace Braille. The Optacon is a camera-like device that transmits the print letters that it scans to a pad where hundreds of little pins would then take the shape of the letters. In 1976 the St. Paul Public Schools applied for grants for a program that would teach use of the Optacon and talking calculator to their blind students. The reasoning behind this was that the Optacon was much faster than Braille. The schools never were approved for funding for this project.
Many employers were beginning to deal with making an office easily accessible to both blind and sighted employees in the early ’80s. Computers were everywhere and in almost every job. The NFB of Minnesota wanted to create a model system to show employers how easily blind and sighted employees could work on the same equipment in an office setting. We purchased the newly-introduced IBM Personal Computer and software. Speech and Braille output were added to the system. Each day blind members and a sighted secretary used the same computer for the organization’s business without difficulty. The computer system was purchased in the fall of 1983. We received grants for $12,000 from IDS in computer time, $1,000 from IBM, and $9,500 from Northwestern Bell. Businesses did come to learn just how easy it would be for them to hire a blind person for their office.
If there is one lesson to be learned from history, it is that no matter how advanced technology may become, there is no replacement for Braille.
From the NFB OF MN, 75TH ANNIVERSARY COMPILATION
The long white cane, as we know it today, really did not begin to gain respectability until the blind themselves actively promoted its use. The notion of using a branch or stick as an aid to independent travel is not all that novel. Even during the middle ages, one can find accounts of blind people using branches or sticks to get around. But throughout history the cane has been regarded as a symbol of helplessness and dependence. Only recently have the blind been able to turn this around.
We do not know how many early leaders of the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind (now called the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota) used the white cane or any variation of it. However, they did not let the absence of a cane prevent them from getting where they wanted to go. Although it is clear that many of them traveled with the assistance of a sighted guide, we also have reports of how individual leaders secured rides and traveled unescorted when the need arose. This took great confidence and determination. Was it safe? Perhaps not. However, in those days, cane travel training was not available.
At a meeting of the Board of Directors, the issue of traveling in the cities was discussed. On December 28, 1920, the organization adopted a policy supporting the idea of using whistles as a travel aid. The idea was that the blind traveler would stand at a street corner and blow the whistle, thereby letting passersby know that he or she needed assistance to cross the street. The organization helped to purchase and distribute whistles for many blind people traveling in St. Paul.
In 1926, the Board of Directors heard about blind people in other states traveling with reed canes. The board members thought that these canes might prove of help to blind people in Minnesota, and so started a search for these canes.
Due to the efforts of the membership White Cane ordinances were passed in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the fall of 1933. In March of 1945, a White Cane ordinance was passed by the state Legislature.
A White Cane committee was established in 1934 to secure donations for white canes to be distributed to blind people. The committee set standards for the canes to be three feet long and white. If the white cane was to be a symbol to the sighted community that the person carrying the cane was blind, education of the public needed to be done. So the committee got on many talk shows and news broadcasts to spread the message. Leaflets were printed and distributed to the public. Efforts were made to interest the press in the whole white cane issue.
Blind people from other states were asked to speak at conventions about how the white cane was used and accepted in their communities. In 1933, a Mrs. Gilbert from Peoria Ill. spoke to the semiannual convention on the use of the white cane in her state and in Paris.
Torger Lien, a longtime member of the organization and a travel teacher at the Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault, worked with many blind people, teaching them how to travel independently using all of the tools and sensory cues available to them. On December 30, 1948, at the semiannual convention, he made a presentation to the convention on the proper way to hold the cane when crossing the street. It was his contention that the cane should be held vertically instead of horizontally, as many people had been taught. The convention passed a motion in support of this notion. At the September 11, 1948 board meeting the purchase of hickory canes that the organization would sell to blind people was approved. In 1952 the cost of a cane was $.65. In 1946, plastic canes had been purchased. They sold for $.90 but did not seem to sell well after the first few months.
With all of the enthusiasm shown by the blind community for the cane, one wonders why there was so much shame and stigma attached to it. One reason may be the attitude of the sighted professionals in the field of work with the blind who are supposed to teach the skills and alternative techniques required to travel independently without sight.
In 1975, the NFB of Minnesota fought for the right of a student at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind to carry her cane in the building. Instructors at the Society felt that the cane should not be used for indoor travel. The very people who were supposed to be promoting the cane as a tool for independent travel to be carried with pride were ashamed for it to be used indoors.
The American Foundation for the Blind was often doing studies about how blind people traveled. Of course, since the Foundation really didn’t believe in the ability of the average blind person to travel with competence and independence, it tended to involve as research subjects blind people who fit this stereotype. So when, in 1975, the Foundation convened a conference on winter travel and the blind in Minneapolis, leaders of the NFB of Minnesota felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to provide a positive focus to the research. Without the influence of the organized blind, it was felt that the Foundation would continue to produce findings that perpetuated age-old stereotypes about the helpless, hopeless blind. Many Federationists participated in the conference and repeatedly confirmed the ability of blind people to travel with competence and safety—even during winter weather conditions. Nevertheless, the Foundation’s final report was as negative as ever.
In early 1976, a study was done by the Council for the Handicapped and the Division of Special Education. Apparently, the study had to do with the education of blind children in Minnesota. One conclusion reached in the report produced was that blind children in Minnesota should be taught Braille and cane travel while in elementary school.
Very little was ever done with this report. Still today in too many cases, if parents want cane travel or Braille for a partially blind child, they still need to fight for it.
The history of cane travel in Minnesota would not be complete without a few words about the hard fought battle to keep our long white canes on airplanes. From the very beginning, blind Minnesotans were in the thick of the battle. On December 5, 1975, James Gashel was on his way to Minnesota for our semiannual convention when he was kicked off a Northwest airplane because he would not give up his white cane. It took him another five hours to get to our convention in Minneapolis by another airline. Resolution SA-75-01, deploring Northwest Airlines for their actions and policies, was quickly passed by the convention and circulated widely throughout the community. Many radio stations and newspapers covered the story, supporting Jim.
On the way to the national convention in Baltimore on July 2, 1978, 12 Federationists boarded a United Airlines plane. When they reached Cleveland, where they would need to change planes, an airline representative escorted the group to the next gate where everyone’s tickets were confiscated by a “Mr. Kane.” Mr. Kane demanded that they all surrender their canes or they would not be permitted back on any United flight. Six of them had collapsible canes or dogs and were allowed back on the flight. However, Jim Schleppegrell, Stewart Prost, Mary Hartle, Brad Hodges, Tom Scanlan and Joyce Scanlan all held straight canes and were not permitted to board. They tried for a long time to reason with Mr. Kane. He refused to give them a copy of the regulations they supposedly were violating, refused to give them any kind of statement, refused to allow them on any United flight out of Cleveland (the only airline serving Baltimore from that city), but worst of all he refused to listen to reason. The six ended up on a Greyhound bus the rest of the way to the convention in Baltimore. Later that week they and more than 1,000 other Federationists participated in a demonstration at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) headquarters against such treatment of blind people.
Their trip back was not much better. The blind passengers were herded like cattle by United Airlines personnel. When they refused to give up their canes after the plane landed in Chicago, they were berated by the pilot over the plane’s PA system. The pilot accused the blind persons of delaying the flight. After this treatment, the Minnesota federationists passed out Federation literature and talked with passengers about the nonexistent FAA rules that were in dispute on that plane. By the end of the flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, the passengers understood the problems blind people face at the hands of the airlines.
On her way home from a NAC demonstration on November 11, 1984, Judy Sanders found herself in an exit-row seat on a People Express flight. Judy was told to move from the seat, but she declined. Conversations with a variety of airline and airport officials took place when Judy tried to explain her position without success. Finally the police were called in and she was arrested and charged with disorderly person. On June 27, 1985, Judy was acquitted of all charges in a Boston court.
Less than two weeks later two other Minnesotans were arrested on United Airlines for sitting in an exit row. Steve and Nadine Jacobson were on their way home from the National Convention in Louisville, KY. They boarded the plane and quickly discovered they were in an exit row. They were asked to move and refused. A parade of airline personnel came to get them to move. One person tried jerking Nadine out of her seat without letting her remove her seatbelt. They were abused physically and verbally by airline officials and the Louisville police. The police searched, arrested, fingerprinted, and threw them in jail. Their canes were taken away, and items confiscated by the police were not returned. In short, they were treated like common criminals.
Again, the only charge that could be thought up was disorderly conduct. Steve and Nadine were subjected to a three-day trial in the Jefferson County Civil Court. On November 3, 1985, after deliberating for only two and one half hours, a jury found them not guilty of all charges.
The Jacobson trial was the turning point in the “airline wars.” Northwest had learned its lesson. People Express had learned its lesson. And now United Airlines, the largest airline in the world, had learned that blind people would fight to keep our white canes and the public would support us. The evidence was clear to anyone flying after that trial that the word had spread throughout the airline industry. Treatment of blind people improved markedly.
Today more parents are asking for cane travel for their blind children at an early age. Blind adults proudly carry their canes throughout our communities. There are more blind travel instructors teaching other blind persons the skills to make them a better and confident traveler. Soon, the shame of carrying a cane may be only a lesson read in a history book on the blind.
In my life there have been many mentors that have had a profound impact on my life. One of them was Evangeline Larson, “Vangie”, who was more than a friend and a teacher. A member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota for many years, she knew what a mentor truly was.
I met Vangie in the late 1960’s while a child. She was an older woman, (at the time, she seemed very old) in her mid-50’s I guess. Vangie had never married and did not seem to know much about children. She would talk to me like an adult and was polite when I did not give the correct adult response. I liked her from the beginning.
I became active in the NFB of MN in the mid 70’s. Vangie was always at the meetings, saying hello to everyone, participating in all meetings, woman’s guild and fundraisers. Outside of meeting she made sure to call new members to remind them about upcoming events. Vangie would call me and we would start to talk. The next thing I knew, two or more hours had gone by. It was pleasant to talk with her. She took an interest in everyone and everything. She made me feel special.
Evangeline N. Larson was born February 16, 1911, in Minnesota to Merrill and Marie Larson. Her father worked as a salesman for a sawmill in St. Paul. She had two younger brothers Dwight and Lloyd. During her youth, her grandmother Sina, a Danish immigrant, lived with her family, adding to Vangie’s worldly interests.
Vangie was one of the first of Blind children to be educated in the public schools in MN during the early 1920’s. Her parents did not want to send her away to the school for the blind in Faribault.
After graduating high School, Vangie went to McAlister College. There she joined the chorus, Chi Phi Delta, Sigma Alpha Delta and the Pi Phi Delta. As a student, she excelled in her studies and her music. Not only did she focus on clubs as school, but she also joined the League of Women Voters, another passion of hers through the rest of her life. She graduated in 1933, from Macalister college with a Master’s Degree in English and Music. During college she joined a sorority, keeping in contact with her sorority sisters for the remainder of her life. She played the violin and was an avid reader of non-fiction books, braille if she could get it. But after college, Vangie found that no one wanted to hire a Blind woman. In the 1930’s Vangie and her parents lived at 1887 Carroll Ave.
Vangie wanted to work in the music field. She advertised as a violinist in flyers and in the phone book. When she would travel to visit friends, she often brought her violin and played at the churches or homes of her friends. Her father gave music lessons at their home in St. Paul and that must have been another good connection for Vangie. But by the late 1930’s she had also taken a clerk’s job to earn her living.
When WWII began, she got a job in a factory. After the war was over and the men returned back to their jobs, Vangie was let go. After looking for regular employment, all she could find was a job at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, (MSB) in the workshop for less than minimum wage. There she stayed till she retired from working in the late 1970’s or early 80’s. In the sheltered shop, Sewing and weaving department, Vangie started as a rug weaver. In 1957, there were 22 blind persons in that department.
Even though she had her sheltered shop job, Vangie still listed her occupation as a musician and took music jobs or accepted opportunities to perform with her violin. Such a job at a workshop did not allow a blind person to live on their own in financial independence.
Just because she did not have a fancy job to define a place in society, Vangie did not let that stop her from living a varied life with many different interests and friends. Early in life, Vangie began to learn to play the violin. She considered herself a “longhair” violinist. Although she did not join a formal orchestra, she did play for social events and for friends. She learned her music through reading braille music and memorizing the pieces.
Through the 50’s, Vangie lived at her mother’s home at 2839, 39th Street. Each day she would board the Minneapolis city bus to get to and from her job at the MSB.
For her, Age was just a state of mind. After NFB chapter meetings, she would accompany the young people out to dinner. Vangie was present at legislative activities, talking to local, state and national issues, even if she did not thing they applied to her, or would benefit her any more. When there was a demonstration, she was there to hold up her picket sign, even in the extreme cold of Minnesota.
During our phone conversations and visits at her comfortable apartment at 2727 Bryant Ave S. in Minneapolis, Vangie taught me about history. She could make it come alive. Her favorite were the Kings and Queens of England. Because of the friendship Vangie invited, I began to ask questions about the history of Blind people in Minnesota. Vangie knew everyone, what they did and when. She understood the legislative process and actively took part in legislation relating to blindness and other important issues to herself over the decades so she could explain issues to me in a manor I could understand. I think that she often salted our conversations with pieces of information that were to tease me to ask more about the subject.
I had not gone to college and because of this, I felt stupid around many people. Vangie understood this and never passed judgment. She never made me feel like I was not smart or worthy of learning from her. In fact, I was learning without realizing it. Because of her support, I felt like I stood a chance when going back to college in my late 20’s. Vangie would call and ask how classes were going, give me advice or suggestions. Even though she did not have children of her own, I still felt like I could tell her all about my concerns with day care while attending school and she understood.
Vangie’s life style was that of a business woman. She had a reader come once a week to read her mail, handle correspondence, label groceries and such. Her home was pleasantly decorated with family pictures and figurines of birds. Vangie almost always had a pet bird. I asked about the pictures she had displayed in a non-cluttered setting and she could always tell me who was in them and a story about the pictures. One hold back from her upbringing was that she did have her brother handle her finances. Other than that, she was a self-sufficient, confident woman far ahead of her time. Vangie was not ashamed of herself for not accomplishing more in a career. Everything she did, she enjoyed for one reason or another and felt that life was all of what we make it.
If one project ended, she became involved with another. Vangie was on the board of the Senior Organization, active in the NFB, her sorority, gave generously to other organizations such as Public Radio and many more things I am sure that I have forgotten. I wanted to live up to the high expectations she had for me and be all she thought I was. I wanted to see myself through her eyes.
Vangie passed away on June 5, 1995 in Minneapolis. At her funeral, most of us attending were young people. She did not have much family left, but her nieces and nephews were there. Most of her sorority sisters had passed on. Those of us attending, in great number were the young people Vangie had taken an interest in. To me, having so many young people to celebrate her life was a tribute to Vangie.
My mentor was a role model. Not for what she had done in her life, but with the spirit that she lived it. I often hope that she is pleased with the paths I have taken.
We celebrate many heroes in our lives, those who have inspired us to try harder, reach further and dream bigger. These heroes come in all sizes, shapes colors and abilities. One of the inspirational heroes of the 20th century from Missouri, in the blind community and indeed, for her family is Helen Dobbins-Brown, an unsung hero, with a disability. This portrait is of Helen Dobbins, a blind woman who came through very tough times all throughout her life and never saw herself as any more than the average woman.
Some have argued that one’s ability to overcome obstacles, or “turn lemons into lemonade” is just luck, hard work or, in your genes. In the case of Helen Dobbins, it might have been all three. Her great-grandfather, Joshua Hurt was a soldier in the war of 1812. Joshua’s sister, Nancy, married Raccoon John Smith, a preacher, who was an early leader in the Restoration Movement of the Protestant Church. Her grandfather, William Berryman Hurt was a very successful farmer in Kentucky and moved his family, before the Civil War, to Illinois. The women in her family tree were well educated, literate women. Indeed, education was valued highly by her ancestors.
Helen’s American story begins in 1650, with William Hurt Sr., who arrived in Virginia from England at the age of 22. About 1673 or 1674, he received a land grant of 213 acres in New Kent County, Virginia where his family would live for many generations, before spreading out to South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri.
Several books have been written about her ancestors such as; The Early Hurt Family of Virginia” by Oscar Hurt, as well as her family mentioned in detail in the many books written about her great-great uncle Raccoon John Smith, such as Raccoon John Smith; Frontier Kentucky’s Most Famous Preacher, by Elden John sparks. They highlight a family that took stands that were not popular, such as Raccoon John Smith. They were pioneers, coming to this country before the Revolutionary war, settling in the new lands as they were being opened up by pioneers, long before their statehood. Hardships were a part of life to these people. They embraced it and came out as successful farmers, pioneers and religious leaders.
Helen Elizabeth Dobbins was born on July 10, 1880, the first child to John A Dobbins and Kate Ward Hurt in Lindley Missouri. Many records vary on her actual place of birth. Some reflect it was Berlin, in in Sangamon County in Illinois, (now part of Springfield). However, living family members who have researched family records in depth, as well as legal documents say that Helen was born in Missouri.
Much of her early childhood was spent in Illinois near Springfield where her mother and father’s families had settled. Long lasting friendships were formed here that would last throughout Helens life.
The family, although not considered wealthy, did live comfortably. However, they were not immune to life’s tragedies. Grandfather William died in 1887, leaving Grandma Elizabeth to run the farm. Helen’s father died in the summer of 1889, leaving her mother, Kate to raise her two small children alone.
As a child of 10, Helen contracted Measles. A complication of her illness resulted in blindness. This did not stop her family from helping Helen continue her education after regaining her health. Helen attended the Franklin public school in Pleasant Planes, Sangamon County Illinois To help her read, an eye patch made of metal was formed for her left eye. The vision in her right eye being completely gone. It had a small hole in the center of the patch to help her focus on the letters. Her aunt Fanny fastened silk around the edges of the metal patch to keep it from irritating her eye. Because of her illness, Helen was put back a couple of years and was in the class with the younger children. Helen attended school here through her teens.
Helen and her younger brother John lived with Grandma Hurt on her farm. Grandma Hurt raised sheep and rented out her farm and pasture land to earn money. The farm did well enough for Grandma Hurt to hire a girl to help in the house. Aunt Fanny Belle never married and lived with her mother, helping out with the homestead. Aunt Fanny was very close to Helen and a major influence in Helen’s life.
A neighbor from her early childhood and school-mate, Tom Manchester, told Helen’s granddaughter, in a 1980 interview, how Helen adapted to her blindness and continued to play just as hard as her brother, near-by cousins and neighborhood friends. Helen’s grandmother, Elizabeth Berry-Hurt, already a widow by 1887, owned over 300 acres of land with a stream that ran through the property. In the winter, the stream was dammed up to form a pond that was a source of ice for the icehouse the rest of the year. Also, the pond was a great place to ice skate. Tom remembers how they helped Helen learn to skate. At first, Helen would put a chair in front of her and slide along the pond. Then she added ice skates. .Next, she convinced her playmates to hold her hands. In no time, as children do, they grew tired of Helen’s needs for assistance. The friends and cousins would help her get oriented to the pond and then Helen was off on her own to skate. She loved it.
As it was a pond, there were times when the children should not have been on the ice as it was not frozen over yet. Tom remembers a particular skating party at the Hurt farm with Helen and John, Tom and some of his sisters as well as the two German sisters, Hannah and Elsa, that lived a couple of miles down the road. The ice was thin, but they skated anyway, holding hands. One fell through the ice and they all followed behind. Tom helped Helen out, then he and his sister went home to get warm.
A wire fence was erected to block off the pasture lands on the Hurt farm. Not an uncommon practice. The wire was strung about three feet off the ground, between posts. As it was just a thin wire, Helen could not see it and was concerned that she would run into it while playing and running with the other children. Helen determined that if she took large sheets of paper and pinned them to the fence, she could see the paper in time to stop herself from running into the wire and continue to run and play with the other children.
Her mother remarried and Helen and her younger brother John, went to live with their new father, Abraham Lincoln Berry, a Presbyterian minister, stationed in Green and Humboldt Counties, in Iowa. Soon the family moved to Livermore township in Humboldt County, in the northern part of Iowa where they stayed for several years.
After moving to Iowa, her mother and step-father sent her to the College for the Blind in Vinton Iowa, (now known as the Iowa School for the Blind and Visually Impaired), enrolling her on August 31, 1901.
Music was a small part of Helen’s life before the school for the blind. Helen had some knowledge of the piano and violin before entering into the Iowa College for the Blind. While at Vinton, it was said that she excelled in music, both on the piano and vocals. Actually, her grades show that she did much better in Mathematics, History and Latin. The first year of classes there, she was taking classes at multiple levels to catch her up with her classmates. Her History level was the ninth grade, (advanced education at that time) while her Literature classes were at the 10th Grade level. She had special testing for her Latin at the college for the Blind the first year. Her Latin classes at Franklin School back home, allowed her to catch up with the others in her class.
During her stay, she learned to read and write Braille, a skill that would serve her well all of her life. Many of her classes focused on a career after leaving school. Music was a career that many of the Alumni had excelled and Helen was channeled into the Music program that turned out music teachers and performers. Helen learned to dictate the writing of sheet music to her readers and family as well as how to write print legibly with a thin stick to define the lines on the print paper.
Helen’s mother, Kate passed away on August 26, 1902 at the age of only 45. It was just before Helen was to leave for her second year of school at the College for the Blind. She arrived at the College on August 30 of that year, fresh with her grief. A lot of loss for a girl so young.
On the week of her graduation from the College for the Blind, in 1903,many activities took place as was the custom at that time. One night was a programs for family, friends and the Vinton Townspeople to show off what the students from several grades, were learning. There was a day for the actual graduation ceremony as well as an annual sermon held at the school chapel. Helen gave an oration entitled “the Value of High Ideals”, a topic she took to heart for the rest of her life. Helen also gave a presentation on the piano” Grand Valse de Concert” and sang “I Cannot Help Loving Thee” for the attendees at their two-day, graduation festivities.
Helen was 23 years old at her graduation. Coming to the College as an older student was not uncommon at that time as Vocational Rehabilitation programs would not be available for persons blinded later in life in Iowa for another four decades. Indeed, all of her class were older students at the time of graduation. All but Mary Flaherty came to the school after the age of ten. Mr. Morse came at age 17, Oliver Crumbliss came at age 20 and Miss Nelson came to the college on and off, since she was 26.
A picture from the Report of the Superintendent of the Iowa College for the Blind to the Iowa Board of Control, shows Helen and the rest of her graduating class. Oliver Crumbliss, seated, was 29. Helen, seated on the right was 23. Mary Flaherty was the youngest at 21. Addie Holland was also 23. John Konechny was 23. Charles Morse was 25 and Christiania Nelson was 35. There is no explanation as to why in the photo there are five women and only two men. It was suggested that a relative or fellow student was asked to be a stand-in for one of the men.
At the time of graduation, Helen had been accepted to continue her education at Oberlin College in Ohio. Helen’s records from Oberlin do not indicate that she was there on a scholarship or any special circumstances. It is not clear where Helen’s money to support herself in Ohio came from. It might have been from her mother’s estate, or from her Grandmother Elizabeth Hurt.
A change in the administration of the College for the Blind in 1898 to the State Board of Control, where the institutions for the mentally ill were located, categorizing it as a “Facility of Confinement”, now meant that no matter how high Helen and other graduates grades or the subject matter they had learned, credits did not transfer over to other institutions of higher learning. Helen would have to take all courses at Oberlin.
Step-father Mr. Berry worked steadily as a preacher, but it was not enough to support his family. On the admission paper for the college for the Blind, his primary occupation was listed as a bookkeeper. It kept the family in a “moderate” life-style, that was considered middle-income for the time. Not bad for a preacher. But it was most likely not enough to send Helen to college.
Her summer vacation after graduation, was spent mostly on the Hurt farm with her Aunt Fanny. Helen renewed her friendship with the Manchester family. Tom’s sister Myrtle was Helen’s age and Mary was two years older. They and Fanny would get together to socialize from time to time.
Before Helen was to leave for Oberlin, her aunt Fanny took a trip to Springfield where she purchased much fabric, including taffeta and supplies for a very nice wardrobe for Helen to take off to school. Fanny hired Myrtle and Mary to make the trousseau. One of the outfits was not to Aunt Fanny’s liking and so the sisters never sewed for Fanny again.
After leaving the College for the Blind in Iowa, she entered into Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin Ohio, in the fall of 1903, at the age of 23, where she remained for three years. It is not sure why she left Oberlin in 1906, before graduation. As there was no record of any scholarships for Helen, it maybe that Helen could no longer afford the tuition. While at Oberlin, Helen majored in Voice and Piano.
Oberlin College was use to successful blind students at their school. Other graduates of the College for the blind had preceded Helen such as Emilie Bracklow and Ernest Willett.
Helen returned in 1906, to Mason City Iowa where her step-father was living and he had been given a parish. Miss Dobbins began to teach music lessons and piano out of her residence. Although she had very nice letters of recommendation from Oberlin College, undated, on the College’s letterhead and signed by Mr. Arthur S. Kimball, Professor of Singing, as well as another one from Margaret Jones Adams, a singing instructor at Oberlin, she found it very difficult to find steady work in Iowa. Even though the public loved to go to hear and watch a blind person perform at their church, they were less likely to hire them as a teacher in the public schools or for their church music curriculum
She took rooms at 834 North Main Street in Mason City that served as her home and studio. One of her pupils was another blind child, Cecil Gale, musically talented young man who died at a young age from a heart disorder. Helen had him as a student for at least two years.
In addition to teaching, to support herself, she and other women would put together entertainment evenings at venues in the Mason City community and across the area at community meetings, Church halls as well as private homes. These would include music selections (piano and vocal) and readings. Two women that she performed with included a Miss Stanberry and a Miss Underkoffler.
On June 25, 1908, Helen married Eugene Fuller Brown from Maquoketa Iowa, in Pleasant Plains Illinois. This was his second marriage as his first wife, Nora, had died in 1904. Gene had no children from his first marriage. Their meeting was that of a true fairy tale. Eugene, or Gene as he was known, passed by a room where Helen was singing. He fell in love with her voice and vowed to meet the woman that moved him with song.
The couple moved to Lyman County South Dakota where “Gene” had purchased homestead land near his brother . The first year of their time in south Dakota, Helen and Gene lived in a “soddie”, until Gene could build up their land with a house. A Soddie was a home made from a hole dug into the earth. The earth was used to form the roof and upper part of the home. Gene was a pharmacist by trade, but also a great carpenter and soon built them a home on the land. In September of their first year, they moved into a shack as the weather was turning cool. By December, they moved into their new, two-bedroom home on their land. Helen told her old school friends in a round-robin letter dated February 9, 1909, that they were very comfortable.
It was during the first year of their marriage, that Helen’s maternal grandmother passed away back in Illinois.. Another loss for Helen. With so many of her family gone, Helen grew stronger, knowing she had to make her own path in life.
The newly-weds life-style was not one for the faint at heart. Blindness did not give her an excuse to not participate actively in their daily lives. It was essential that everyone, especially Helen, carry her weight on the farm, with the family and in the household chores. Helen cooked, cleaned the house, did the sewing for the family as well as taking care of the garden and other farm chores.
The young couple moved from farm to farm around the Midwest. For a time they lived in Webster Missouri in 1910 where they boarded with the Hooton family, then Montana and back to Missouri by the later part of the nineteen-teens, settling on a general farm near Grant township in Webster Co. By now, Gene and Helen had eight children; E. Lincoln, May 24, 1911, Francis July 31 1912, Esther, January 2, 1914, Jeanine Florine, March 12 1915, John Curtis, March 12 1916, Eugene, October 26 1918, Helen, December 2, 1919 and Berryman, March 1, 1920, Helen and Eugene honored family history and carried on the family traditions of naming her children after family members. E. Lincoln was named after Eugene and Helen’s step-father. Berryman was a family name that came down from her grandfather.
With so many similar names in the family, Nick names popped into the daily vocabulary. Helen Dobbins-Brown was affectionately known much of her adult life as “Bahbo”. The youngest daughter, Helen, was known as “Sister”.
Gene and Helen purchased at least 80 acres of land four miles from Marshfield, in Webster Co., Missouri, in about 1918. Again, the couple had to improve the land with buildings and their crops as a condition of purchase. Eugene began their home with one room that became the living room as he added on to the home over the years. When he died, the home had at least two bedrooms besides the living quarters. A kitchen and middle room also made up the family home. Their farm did support the family, but they did not get ahead, especially with eight children. The couple had plans to build and open a gas station on the land to help bring in income for the family, but Eugene died before this could be accomplished.
The farm had a wooden boardwalk that led out the back door to the barns.. Another went from the front door to the driveway. Boardwalks built for a path, kept the walks from becoming muddy. Near the back boardwalk was the pump for the well. It led to the chicken coop, a barn, the outhouse and the cellar where food was stored to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the hot summer months.
After a long illness, Gene passed away on January 12, 1926, leaving her with eight small children. As heartbreaking as it might have been, Helen was now the head of her family and pressed on.
Even though no one would have faulted Helen if she had asked her children to forgo their future and help at home with the farm chores and jobs to support their large family, Helen insisted that all of her children get at least a High School education. This was very important to her. She enjoyed a good education as a child and knew the value of it for the children and in her own life as well. The family always had a large flock of chickens that laid eggs and some were sold to neighbors and the community. Milk from their small herd of cows would also be sold off when there was extra.
For a while, Helen took some of her land and turned it into a camp grounds. She had cabins built on the land as well as space to pitch a tent. All this was set in their park-like, land across the road where there were lots of trees. The up keep proved too much for the family and still keep the children in school. So, Helen rented out the 40 acres for $35 a month to other farmers in the area.
The gas station was built and put into operation several years after Gene’s death. Her step-father cautioned her against spending what little money she had in such a venture. Bahbo kept in contact with and had a good relationship with her step-father, Abraham Berry until his death in 1936. He even came to visit her on her farm, from time to time, after she became a widow. Mr. Berry was not able to help Helen financially, but did lend his emotional support to her and her family.
Abraham was buried alongside his wife in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield IL alongside his wife Kate. Helen’s father John Dobbins is also buried in this same Cemetery.
The early 1930’s was just at the beginning of the age when cars were becoming more common on the roads for a family vacation. Their family gas station sat on the highway that separated their acreage. The road became the famous Route 66. Our country was in the midst of the Great Depression, yet Helen and her family succeeded in their endeavors with the gas station and stayed together as a family. Besides gas, they also sold items. One of the things her children remember well were the ice cream cones they sold. The nickel-covered, ice cream scoop that was used by the family when waiting on customers is still a family treasure today.
The Brown’s belonged to the Methodist churches in the area. Getting to church could be a problem from time to time. With such a big family, it was hard to get rides. Lincoln, the oldest son, was the only one with a driver’s license for several years. Many times they would ask other members of the church to give some of the family rides to and from services.
From time to time, a local reporter would write an article about the amazing blind woman. This was not something that Helen encouraged or sought after. The reporters tended to be amazed that Helen could do anything by herself. Often, there were many inaccuracies that caused mistrust, not only from Helen, but her children as well.
One such article was written in the late 1920’‘s by Docia Karell, and appeared in the Springfield News Leader. Many of the family “facts’ in the article were not correct. Daughter Esther took exception to the characterization of the family as “quaint” or “charming”. Esther was at the family home when Ms. Karell came to call. Esther, only about 10 years old at the time, felt that the reporter treated her mother with disrespect. Ms. Karell, she felt was patronizing. Esther said that none of the siblings were pleased with the visit from the reporter.
In her home in Missouri, Helen kept up with her music. Her Granddaughter, Gale, remembers that she “had a sizeable library of sheet music. The sheets were hand-stitched inside folders and housed in a custom-crafted oak cabinet that towered over us. It had a shelf for every letter of the alphabet–marked by brass letters.” Helen sang in church on a regular basis, even into her late 70’s. Helen would transcribe her music into braille using a slate and stylus. Others would read to her, the music and she would write it in a form, accessible to her.
One of her musical accomplishments she was proud of, was to have published one of the pieces she wrote entitled “Spring Time” a vocal solo piece. It was published in 1937 and brought in a little money for the family. The song celebrated the sounds of nature that Helen enjoyed listening to on her farm. The original piece was written in braille. Helen then had her youngest daughter transcribe the music from the braille to print. Her daughter, Helen did not know braille. So Mother would read the music to her daughter and tell her where in the base or treble clef, each note must be placed. Her knowledge of the braille system as well as how to write print music, and then to be able to describe the translations to be copied correctly is a skill that very few blind persons have today.
What gave her most enjoyment and pride were her eight children. After the Second World War, Helen wrote to Oberlin conservatory and shared the efforts of all of her children, all working. Her four sons joined the military and went to war, serving in many foreign ports. Three of her oldest daughters became nurses and daughter Esther was an Army nurse serving in the Philippines and Japan. All her children held jobs after the war, supporting themselves and their new and growing families.
The Brown family farm was never an elaborate or modern home. For a family of 10, it was quite small. Much of the food eaten by the family all year round was grown and put up by Helen and the children. Among the usual farm-grown crops, they put up gooseberries as they grew wild on their farmstead. There was electricity to at least parts of the house for Helen to listen to the news programs on her radio. The Lone Ranger being a favorite of her and some of her grandchildren. Only the main room of the farm house was heated. In the cold winter nights, Helen would heat up the flatirons and carry them to her bed. On the wall by the door hung the large, hand-cranked telephone. As was the custom in many areas at that time, Helen was part of a party line, but did not, nor did she allow her children or grandchildren to listen to conversations over the phone, if it was not their call.
The lighting in her home was from the Kerosene lamps. To the best of anyone’s memory, Helen did not install electric lights in the house, Just the electric service for the necessary things like her radio.
There was an upright piano in the small living room. In the evening, after chores, Helen would often play the piano. No one from the family, currently living, ever remembers Bahbo teaching music to her children, as suggested by a newspaper reporter. What they do remember was how they loved to listen to her play and her granddaughter Gale remembers fondly, singing along to grandma Bahbo as she played the requested songs for the children. On weekends or special occasions, neighbors and friends would come over and sing hymns and songs they all loved.
Helen was well read and interested in literature, education and current affairs. Part of her possessions included a braille bible and a crank gramophone that she played recorded books for the blind from the Library of Congress. The recorded and braille books would be delivered by the mail man regularly to the farm and enjoyed while she did chores in the house.
After her children grew up and moved away, she continued to live on that farm until she was about seventy years of age, by herself. During the last few years on the farm, one of her daughters, Helen, the youngest daughter and one living the closest, would take the Greyhound bus to her mother’s once a week with groceries and supplies. Daughter Helen was a single mother, working as a bookkeeper. Eventually, Bahbo moved into the home her daughter Helen had rented until she went to the nursing home. This was large enough to accommodate mother, daughter and granddaughter.
Helen Dobbins-Brown passed away on January 4, 1968, at Mercy Villa, in Springfield, Missouri. She had been in poor health for several years by that time. According to family, Helen may have had a small stroke and the last years of her life, her mind was not always clear. At one point, the health facility she was a resident of, returned mail to Oberlin College saying that Helen had passed away as they felt Helen did not need to be bothered. In May of 1965, her daughter Helen, wrote back to Oberlin College asking that she be reinstated to the mailing list and that any correspondence from Oberlin be sent to her, to ensure her mother would get her mail and the news from her mother’s alma mater.
Her funeral was a celebration and time of reunion as well for her family. Her children had not been all together as a unit in over 35 years as they were now scattered from Florida to California. The strength that Helen had given to them and demonstrated through the loss of her husband, the Great Depression and so much more, created strong citizens who went out to serve their country through their careers.
There are so many unsung heroes in our country, this is true. Those with a disability are more often overlooked by history and historians as they are not understood, or those researching, cannot understand how a disabled person can accomplish even the most routine of tasks. Not only have many of our disabled ancestors struggled through the same hardships as their non-disabled counterparts, but have had the additional hardship of their disability, even more so, the added stigma and rejections that their disability brings. Many times, a disabled person has had to try twice as hard to get half as far as their siblings, classmates or neighbors. Helen came a long way for any non-disabled woman of her circumstances and deserves to be recognized.
Henry Frederick Carl Schluntz, was born on October 16, 1897, near Keystone, in Benton County Iowa to Edward and Anna Harden Schluntz. Henry was the only son and the youngest of five children born to the couple. He seems to have been blind from birth, but no cause of blindness is listed in school records or other documents.
When interviewing Older Iowans about some of the Blind Iowans that were mentors to them in their early life, Henry’s name always came up. He was one of the first to lead the many blind Chiropractors in the state. Henry was an outgoing person, eager to work with any blind person to help them begin their career, not just as a chiropractor, but work through ideas on how to enter a profession not supported by the general public or blindness agencies. But one other characteristic that everyone mentioned during their interview and early in in most, was that he was rich! Henry may not have been “rich”, but he was well off for sure, financially, better situated than many blind persons and many residents of his home in Keystone Iowa.
As a young child, he was sent to the College for the Blind, as it was known by at that time, in Vinton Iowa. This was not a College per se, rather a school for grades kindergarten through high school. Many who graduated at the time of Henry’s entrance into the school and graduation had a better grounding in their studies than did many of children in the state of Iowa from the hometown or country schools of the time.
At the College for the Blind, Henry took all the usual subjects, math, social studies, geography, Latin, science. But also took braille, typewriting and lots of music classes. Music was a proven profession that blind persons had been accepted into and could easily support themselves.
During his time at school, Henry participated in many musical programs and plays performed at the school. Townsfolks from Vinton came to these performances regularly. The talents of most of the students were of a higher quality than most schools. Remember, there were no TV’s to stay one and watch. Although music or acting were not something Henry excelled at, he did enjoy performing.. In 1919, Henry took second place in the state’s Oratory meet for high school students in Manchester, Iowa. Schluntz’s talent for persuasion was a great asset in his life’s ultimate success. He graduated in 1921 from the Iowa College for the Blind along with Florence Reeves, his future wife.
Schluntz went to the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport Iowa the fall of 21. When he graduated in 1923, he set up his business in Keystone Iowa right away. He told people that one of his secrets to success was how he listened to his patients.
He was not the only blind student at Palmer that session. Rudolph Bjornseth, from Bottineau North Dakota also attended the school. The two were about the same age and became friends while at Palmer Henry and Bjornseth became locally famous for their ingenuity.
In the local newspaper, there was a write up about Rudolph and Henry. Reporters found their ability to receive radio programs through their bed springs most remarkable. They ran a wire from the eaves of their boarding house and through the window and tied to the bed springs. The crude radio was strong enough to pull in the radio waves of WCCO in Minneapolis MN, more than 200 miles away. This way he could listen to the concerts over WCCO radio station.
Henry married his high school sweetheart from the College for the Blind, Florence Reeves on May 3, 1924. The couple took in a daughter, Gloria, a foster child. They had no children of their own.
After becoming a Chiropractor, Henry took many opportunities to address clubs and churches to educate the public about himself, blindness and his practice. He spoke to the Belle Plaine Lions Club one year and told of his strategies to providing quality chiropractic care for his patients. Henry told how he listened to the words that his patients said to him in his office. He also used his hands to gently feel the body for the words it told him through his fingers. Reaching out to parents of blind children was also very important to him, knowing how supportive his family was of him becoming independent as a blind person, he wanted the same opportunities for the blind children coming behind him.
He encouraged younger blind persons to enter the field of Chiropractic’s, such as William Hahle, Wallace Schroeder and Julius Sixta during his many trips back to the ICB for alumni meetings and volunteer activities at the school.
Henry hired a chauffeur to drive him around the state to visit people in their homes as well as travel to meetings representing the blind of Iowa and to talk about blindness. An expense that he felt was necessary to build his business and show the community that he was willing to do what was necessary to be the best doctor for his patients. One of his first chauffer’s was a young man, Carl Pinge from Keystone who was with the couple for several years. By hiring a driver, Henry took an aggressive role in reaching patients that might not have come into town to see the blind doctor, making him very popular.
When he did not have patients coming in the office, Henry and his driver would get in the car, travel down the rural northern Iowa country roads and just drive up the farm driveways, stop and talk to those who were home. He introduced himself and explained how he could help with their health needs. In the early years, he would do a minor adjustment for the families on these introduction visits. His hope was that they would find relief in the little that he did for them and would want to come into town for a follow up visit. It worked!
In 1934, Henry divorced Florence and married Pauline O. Pirtle in Kirksville MO on October 18, 1934. Pauline was also blind and a former student of the ICB at Vinton. Pauline was also active in the blind people’s organizations of Iowa alongside her husband.
The couple enjoyed listening to music and embraced the new technology such as the record player when they first became poplar. The new record player in his home was a topic of discussion with new people that he met and his patients.
About this time, the Library of Congress began the Talking Book program. Books were recorded onto records and sent via the mail to blind persons. Iowa did not have a very good library service for blind people until 1960. Yet, Henry was able to order books in braille and also books recorded onto slow-playing records for the blind and play them on his record player. This brought a whole new dimension to reading for the couple.
In 1943, Henry became ill and had to close his sole-practitioner, business for several months. His temporary closure of his business was not as financially draining as it would have been to most doctors, because his practice was very successful and he had set money aside, to ensure the future of his family. Henry must have been keenly aware of how easy it could be for a sighted chiropractor to move into town and take away his business. After his long illness, Schluntz took out advertisements in many community newspapers around Keystone to let people know he was back in business. His patients came right back to Henry.
In July of 1943, Henry and his wife purchased the 160 acre dairy farm just outside of Dysart, Iowa. Another indication of their financial success. This was a working farm with animals and crops. It also was the destination for large family gatherings for the holidays and summer vacations. Their farm also served as a great gathering place for church events or weekend-long picnics for the blind organizations they belonged to.
Community involvement was what helped promote his practice, but was also a way to give back to the communities that helped him become a success. Henry was a member of the Lions Clubs, served on the Iowa Advisory Committee for the Blind and took an active role in crafting and promoting legislation effecting the blind of Iowa. He served on many committees and in many offices , including president of the Iowa Association of the Blind (the former name of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) of Iowa). He attended National conventions of the NFB in the 1950’s and encouraged other Blind Iowans to do the same.
Many blind people remember how he made such an impression on the blind students at the school when he would come up for the Alumni meetings with his chauffeur in his new large Lincoln car. Henry and his wife were always well dressed and friendly to everyone.
Henry was one of many, but as President of the Iowa Association for the Blind , he had a major impact on bringing Dr. Kenneth Jernigan to Iowa to direct the Commission for the Blind. Henry was on the Legislative Committee of the Iowa Association and took an active role in legislation in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, helping to build the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
In 1963, Henry sold his successful chiropractic business in Keystone after 39 years. The couple moved to San Diego, California. Henry passed away there on March 3, 1972.
The National Federation of the Blind of Iowa established an award in his honor after Henry left Iowa. The Henry F. Schluntz award was given at the annual convention of the NFB of Iowa since 1968. The first winner was Judy Young. Other winners included Patricia Schaaf-Maurer in 1972.
Francis, “Fannie” was reported blind, just a few hours after birth in 1886. Born in Seneca County, New York. There is no indication of her parents and there were several Opdyke families in the Seneca County in the 1900’s, making it hard to track her early life.
As a blind child, she was enrolled at the school for the blind in Batavia, New York for the school year beginning in 1894. Fannie learned all the techniques of blindness, braille, braille shorthand music, piano and typewriting. As a student, she would play the piano for school performances and graduations.
While at the school for the blind in New York, she was presented with career options for preparing for graduation. Blind women had been accepted as music teachers in most parts of the country. As a music teacher, she could most likely, make a decent living, not needing to rely on the charity of others. But a new profession had also opened up to blind people because of the invention of the typewriter. Some blind women were finding success as typists in businesses. This is the profession Fannie chose to prepare for while still at school. As she told a news reporter, A blind music teacher could teach many children and adults how to play the piano, but as a blind teacher, if the student did not succeed, many were quick to blame the blind teacher, rather than the lack of talent of the sighted pupil. A blind secretary should be judged on her skills in the office.
Fannie graduated in 1908 from the New York State School for the Blind. At the commencement ceremonies, she played a piano piece from Chopin.
After graduation, she joined the Blind Woman’s Club, that met in New York City participating in fundraisers. This was a group of blind women, supporting each other. Many of them were employed in a variety of professions around New York City. Fannie would often read in braille, to the members and guests at their events in Braille. The group had a camp for blind girls that was their big project to raise money and support.
When moving to New York City, she took rooms at 136 East 47th St. in New York City On October 1, 1909, Fanny became a secretary at the law offices of attorney Catherine V. Curry. Her duties included writing letters from a graphophone in the offices. Her employer commended Fanny on how fast she picked up the graphophone and the accuracy of her work, noting that she was just as good, if not better than the other secretaries in her office. Fannie could type accurately, 70 words a minute. Through mapping out the forms, understanding how far to roll a form into the typewriter and how far to space over, Fannie was able to fill out the necessary legal forms without sighted assistance.
Her next job was as a Typist/Dictaphone operator in New York City at the Condemnation Department in the City’s court system. She again excelled at her work. She was also quite adept at the six-key, short hand machine used at that time by many secretaries to take notes, in New York.
In 1916, Fannie and another blind girlfriend, Clara Barnum, about 10 years older, decided to take a huge risk and take the train to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they both got typing jobs. There is no indication as to why two blind women would leave the bustling city for a small, western town with no supporting clubs of the blind or former teachers to call for advice. Fannie took a job with the law offices of W.C. Reid, the attorney for the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroads. To her credit, her employer told the New York School for the blind that because of her skill, Fannie had a higher rate of pay than many of the secretaries in the office. By 1917, she was the lead secretary in the office, earning a salary of $90 a month.
Fannie would walk from her home to her offices by herself each day. The ladies took rooms at 513 Marquette. Later Fannie bought that home. She and her roommate, Clara, took in lodgers. at their home, many times, the women lodgers were of their own age. They had a nice garden of flowers and vegetables that they enjoyed caring for. Clara may not have been employed as long as Fannie, but continued to live with Fannie for several decades in Albuquerque. Fannie retired from the law offices in 1936.
Back home in New York, in 1924, Fannie was honored, being remembered by the Business and Professional Woman’s League of New York City when awarding 8 other blind New York City blind women for their achievements. Miss Fannie had achieved much in her life and to many, blind or sighted women, was seen as courageous, moving to the wild west. Fannie’s name was foremost in articles that covered the event, noting Fannie as a pioneer in the field of blind secretaries. The BPWL worked with The New York League of Blind Women, where Fannie had once been a member to assist blind women, helping to find jobs and get the necessary training for work in the secretarial fields.
Back in Albuquerque, Fannie joined the Friendship League for the Blind as a consultant. This was a charity that operated a sheltered shop from time to time. Fannie supported the use of the White Cane when they were purchased by the Friendship league in 1939. She said that many blind people were afraid to walk alone with just a cane as many drivers did not know what the cane was or what it symbolized. Her efforts, working with the Friendship League were to educate the public on the blind and how they traveled. There is no indication that Fannie used a cane, but as she talked to many about how to use a cane, she may have been one of the first blind persons in New Mexico to use a cane for traveling.
by 1939, Fannie was very ill and unable to work or participate in her community service projects. This did not stop her from being active in her church, working on the calling committee for the Apostolic Cathedral in downtown Albuquerque.
Fannie passed away on April 22, 1944. She died from burns suffered in a fire in her home. Her bathrobe and nightgown caught on fire from the gas heater in her room.
One of the most famous Blind Minnesota politicians has got to be Thomas David Schall. Friends, as well as enemies of Mr. Schall all would agree that he was a strong force in our country’s political world because of his great oratorical skills and powers of persuasion.
Thomas David Schall was born in Reed City, Michigan on June 4, 1878, the third child to David Schall Jr. and Mary Ellen Jordan-Schall. Soon after Thomas was born, the family moved to Minnesota. David had purchased land in Sterns County Minnesota during the spring of 1880. Soon after, David left his family and soon married again, without divorcing his first wife. Mary Ellen and children found their way to Traverse County, Minnesota. The two daughters, much older than Thomas, married early. Thomas and his mother were living with Myron Robinson in 1885. Although Thomas’s father lived till 1912, to Thomas, his father was dead.
From early childhood, Tom led a tough life. At an early age, he was selling papers in the streets till late at night. He tells of sleeping in boxes in the streets of Minneapolis after selling his last paper for the night. Other jobs included being a boot black, ice Cream Salesman, bouncer in a saloon, wood cutter, professional baseball player, farm hand, cowboy and more. Being able to dance and having a strong voice, he joined the circus for several months while still a child. after that, he found himself back with his mother in Wheaton, Minnesota.
Tom started school at the age of 12 in Wheaton. He went to Ortonville High School where he was convinced to enter an oratorical contest where he won first prize. He went on to state competition and won second place. Previously, his interests had been fighting and baseball, now he turned to speaking. The next year, when only 13, he was the speaker for the fourth of July at the gathering of old Soldiers in Ortonville. He got a taste for politics in 1898, when he was given the task of speaking to a over-flow crowd at a political rally.
His oratorical gift earned him a scholarship at Hamlin University. After transferring to the University of Minnesota in 1900, he continued to win honors for himself and his school in the Northern Oratorical League contest held in Chicago Illinois, in the spring of 1902. While at the U of M, he also won the Pillsbury Prize. He once told a reporter that the more expensive his suit for the contests, the higher his placement.
Thomas earned his A. B. degree from the U of M in 1902, and received his LL.B degree from the St. Paul College of Law in 1904. To be sure he could pay his way through school, he opened his own laundry service for fellow students and near-by residents. .
He was admitted to the bar in 1905. Thomas began his practice in corporate law, with his friend, A. D. Smith. Their first office was in the Globe Building and then in the Securities Bank Building in Minneapolis. At first his clients were those who needed his service, but could not afford him. Thomas got paid in farm produce and once, even a cider press. At first, he even had to be his own janitor for his law firm, Tom felt that things had turned out right well for himself.
On November 5, 1902, in St. Paul, Thomas married Marguerite Daisy Huntley. He and his new bride set up house, in a small apartment, at 40 1/2 11th Ave, S., Marguerite Daisy Huntley who’s family roots go back to John Huntley who came to New London CT before 1650, had a strong interest in community affairs. She was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at the University of Minnesota and served as an officer. and a graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1902, as well.
In 1907 he was trying a case in Fargo N.D. Court had recessed for lunch. Thomas and another attorney went to the cigar stand to purchase a cigar. The other attorney lit his cigar with a match. But Thomas lit his with a new electric cigar lighter. The lighter exploded and threw Schall backwards.
His arm was seared, but he still went back into court to finish off the day. Thomas noticed that day, his vision was a bit unfocused. As the days progressed, he lost more and more of his sight. Within a year, Schall was totally blind.
Schall and his wife went to Doctor after Doctor, hoping for a cure. They exhausted their savings; sold all their belongings, his law library and eventually everything they owned. Tom heard of a Doctor who had a new surgical procedure. But it would cost a lot of money, money that they did not have. He had to go back to work or let the depression he was feeling, take over.
A friend gave him some space in his law offices. Gradually, his confidence came back. He focused on personal injury law. Soon he forgot about chasing after a cure for his blindness and opened up his offices in the Security Building in Minneapolis, an office he kept for many years. It was time to re-invent himself again. Once again, he had to rise from the ashes of his life and soar like the Phoenix.
Margaret, his wife, became his personal secretary both in the law offices and in Washington. Before she married Tom, while she was attending the University of Minnesota, she earned extra money reading to a professor who was losing his sight. Given Thomas’s past and her knowledge of what the blind professor accomplished at the U, she urged her husband to continue in his law profession.
The Schall’s also started on their family at this time. Their first son, Thomas Jr. was born in 1911. Richard was born in 1913 and their only daughter, Padget Ann was born in 1920.
As personal favors, he began making speeches for his friends who were running for political office. These speeches were very successful for his friends, and himself as well. Soon he decided to run for political office himself, filing for the congressional seat as a Progressive in 1913. His first attempt in 1912, for the congressional seat was not successful. But he ran again in two years and won.
All his life, just as his father’s family, he had been a Republican. But when Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Schall’s hero, bolted from the republican party, so did Tom. He rejoined the Republican Party a few years later, but was always on the outside because of his defection and unwillingness to always follow the party line.
Schall began his term as the first blind Congressman on March 4, 1915. He was re-elected each year until 1925, when he began his first term as Minnesota’s Blind U. S. Senator. In the house, he chaired such committees as the committee on Alcohol Liquor Traffic and the committee on Flood control. Tom also served on the Rules committee.
In no time, he earned the respect of many of his colleagues as well as influential people like Theodore Roosevelt. As an outspoken man, he made many strong, long-lasting friendships. He also made some determined enemies.
As a blind man, and because of the times, Schall hired a chauffeur during the 1914 campaign year, to drive him to the political rallies and events to promote his campaign. After the first campaigns, Margaret had many suggestions for him and soon, Margaret was doing the driving and staging for the speaking engagements. One of her suggestions was, since Schall could not see the audience, he could not tell if those in the back were restless, from not hearing him. With her theatrical experience from the U. of M, she had some suggestions. One suggestion was that Schall stand with his back to the wind. His voice would travel farther. Success.
One thing he loved to do was to speak to the people. It is said that he would talk to any group and at great length on current issues. Most of his supporters were the poor people of Minnesota, some of whom were the clients that he helped, when they had no money to pay for legal services.. He would address crowds, primarily outdoors, at community picnics or on street corners from the back of a car. It didn’t’ matter to him. It has been said that if three people were found loitering outside his Lake Harriet home, he would take that opportunity to speak from his retaining wall to those who would listen.
When Thomas went blind, there were no adult training programs for the blind in the state of Minnesota. He did not learn braille. His memory was not that keen. At first, Thomas would have Margaret read to him, his case notes or citations, over and over again, until he could remember them. After several years, Margaret only had to read most things once and Thomas would have it committed to memory. Most of his speeches were off-the-cuff. He took the details he memorized and wove them into presentations that grabbed his audience. Printed copies of his speeches were not submitted in print to be added to the congressional record. They were actually given, with only his memory to rely on. Once again, he had to rise from the ashes of his life and soar like the Phoenix.
Thomas sought out accommodations for being blind. The house voted in 1915, to allow Congressman Schall the use of a page in Washington D. C. The page would act as his guide through the capitol. This was in addition to other staff for his office.
From time to time, he would have one of his children lead him around the capitol as well. A newspaper article in 1920, showed a picture of Thomas, son Dick, wife Margaret and daughter, walking outside the capitol. As Margaret was his reader/secretary, she many times would bring the children with, during the early years, to the office. For daughter Padget or “Peggy” as she was sometimes known by, they did hire a nanny to stay with the child at home on their large homestead, or small farm as Margaret called it.
Their home at 33 Claggett Road in in Berwyn Maryland, had room for their horses, a small orchard and garden as well as a swimming pool.
The Schall family continued to have a run of bad luck. Sen. Schall said many times that “Fate sure has it in for the Schall family”. Not only had Thomas led a rough life as a child and was blinded, he was injured in a car accident, in January of 1921. A street car hit another street car hitting the Schall car. Margaret was driving, their chauffeur was also in the car, with the two boys. All suffered injuries, but not serious enough for a stay in the hospital. In 1918, with the chauffeur driving, they rear-ended an army truck on a Washington road. Margaret was taken to the hospital with injuries as she went through the windshield. Congressman Schall injured His knees, but not bad enough to be taken to the hospital. Margaret had another accident in 1918, where she was injured, but refused medical treatment. This was just a few months after the boat that the Senator and Mrs. Schall were on, was torpedoed and almost sank.
Padget had surgery for her back in 1933 as well as having her appendix out at a young age She also broke many bones and suffered concussions as a result of falls while horseback riding while a teen. Thomas Jr. was seriously injured in a car crash when an oil tanker his car in 1930. Tom broke a leg and arm. Just a few days later in 1930, Richard broke a wrist while cranking a Ford. In June of 1935, Richard was lucky and only broke an ankle in a plane crash near Dover Delaware.
During the first world war, some U. S. legislators went overseas to evaluate the war situation, talk with the troops and gain a better perspective on the U. S.‘s actual commitment to the war. When Tom learned that a few of his fellow Congressmen were going overseas, he felt that he should as well. Blindness should not be an excuse for him not to better understand the war effort. In fact, he felt that because he was blind, he was not hampered by what he saw, rather he had insight to understand. He said “I studied their voices—my ears catch more than yours”. His wife Margaret was allowed to go along as his guide and this did upset some of his opponents, that his wife should be allowed to travel at government expense. Thomas argued that she was his trusted guide.
Overseas, the Senator and his wife visited with front-line divisions. They interviewed many people in their homes, while bombing was occurring just outside. He did not take the “safe” road. Thomas was determined to learn, first-hand what entering into the war meant for the United States and its boys.
On September 5, 1918, on his way back home to the U. S., the Mount Vernon Transport ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, 250 miles from shore. The Senator was in the bath of his suite, at the time. The ship was hit and tilted about 10 degrees. He said in a news article that broken glass was everywhere. He and Mrs. Schall dressed quickly and made their way to the deck, beating Senator Lewis, who was also aboard. The Senators stood in line at a life boat station for a long time as they watched the wounded men being lowered into lifeboats. After a while, the Schall’s went to the captain’s cabin to wait.
The ship made it back to Brest Harbor in France about 17 hours later after the shelling. After a few days, the couple were back on a new ship to the U. S. The press felt that the Senator and his wife were quite brave to Go through such an ordeal and not be emotionally upset by the whole event.
He felt that his sons needed to learn the value of work and to work for what they get in life. Both Dick and Tom Jr. shined shoes for Senators, Congressmen and their staff on the steps of the Senate buildings. They also spent a few summers, working for their aunt Bina Wilcox, Thomas’s older sister, on her farm in Aberdeen South Dakota. This was a job the boys did not like.
His sons were sent back to Minnesota for their high school years. They attended Shattuck Military academy in Faribault Minnesota for most of their high School years. The boys also took an active effort in their father’s campaign during this time Son Tom would drive his father between Washington D. C. and Minnesota for attend political functions. The boys would go with their father, door to door, reaching out to voters in Minnesota.
He did not forget his blind brothers and sisters on his way to success. Tom Schall was the first legislator to accept an invitation to speak to the convention of the Minnesota State Organization of the blind in June of 1924. The MSOB counted Schall as a friend in the Congress and contacted him on issues such as the pension for the blind bill. While in the Senate, Schall met with MSOB representatives over the Robbins bill that was the forerunner to the Randolph-Shepard Act that gave blind persons preference in Federal buildings in the vending stands.
The press of Minnesota was democratically controlled and therefore had little to say in support of Schall. But this did not bother him. He gave as good as he got. His associates describe him as “unyielding”. and “not afraid of any man”. Schall took his work seriously, serving on his committees as well as attending and participating in committees he was not a member of. At one time he was described as “blazing forth in strong and vivid language” to make his point for the State of Minnesota. He also took great pride in the fact that he was able to answer all his letters within a twenty-four hour period.
The press also focused on Margaret as his constant companion. One article in 1914, was titled “Devoted wife sends blind husband to congress” In that article it stated that Schall was “blind and comparatively helpless”. It implied that Margaret was the force behind Schall. The press loved Margaret and she loved them. She was mentioned almost as much as he was. Both knew well, the power of the press and how to use it to their advantage.
1924 was a hard fought election campaign to the Senate for Schall. He was running in a newly created district. Thomas lost the Republican primary, but defeated Magnus Johnson in the election with 46% of the popular vote..
William Randolph Hearst was a big supporter of Thomas Schall. With his support came many front page articles about the Senator in his many papers. This also prompted criticism back home. His opponents tried to paint him as part of an eastern block of politicians and not interested in the affairs of Minnesotans. Yet with each election, Schall’s popularity grew.
Schall voted to repeal prohibition so that men and women would be able to purchase better liquor openly. Interestingly, Schall was not a drinker. His son Tom told of attending many political meetings, parties, rallies and the like that turned into drinking parties. Senator Schall would get a drink and nurse it all night long so that he had an excuse for not taking another drink. This kept his senses sharp.
He was the first senator to stand up and strongly oppose the New Deal and of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tom lobbied hard for an import ban as he felt that by eliminating imports from other countries that duplicated American goods, more Americans would be able to go back to work and end the depression. He openly commended people and communities that refused federal support, and made it on their own.
Schall opposed Roosevelt’s attempts to regulate the media. Schall wanted media such as radio to be included in the first amendment rights. He used the media to his advantage in attacking FDR in the press with open letters sent across the country to publishers and editors.
The senator was a supporter of the right to bear arms and woman’s vote. Schall’s policies were neither fully Republican nor Democrat, again, keeping him on the edge of both parties.
Politics were not his only love. Ever since he was a child, working on farms and taking care of the animals, he loved horses. In October of 1935, while visiting his daughters school in Virginia, Tom showed off his skills as an equestrian. Using a buzzer system that he had worked out, Schall rode the horse around the area then took it over four foot jumps.
He enjoyed many hobbies. As a public official, he was afforded many opportunities that he would not have had as a lawyer, or maybe not as early in his life. Schall took advantage of these opportunities as often as he could. One hobby was flying. He took his first air plane ride in February of 1918 with Col. Charles F. Lee of the British Flying Corps. Not only was he the first Blind man to fly, according to the Washington Times, but also the rest Congressman. He could be seen many times flying from D. C. to his home in Berwyn Heights, Maryland, on Claggett Road, on a Autogiro. When he could, he would choose to fly across the country. The hobby was infectious. Both of his sons had pilots licenses.
He enjoyed shooting fire arms. He also enjoyed target shooting at his Maryland home. He would use sound to focus on. Sometimes a person would stand at a great distance and hit the target with a stick. It is said that he was a pretty good shot. A short video still exists of him and son Dick in the back yard of their home. It was taken just days before he was killed. Dick hits the target with a long pole. The Senator shoots and as is clearly seen on the video, hits it in the center of the target.
Blindness was something Thomas was never ashamed of. Most often, he could be found in the front row of the House of Representatives with his cane between his knees. Early photos of Thomas Schall, show him using a walking stick. His grandson Thomas Schall III, has among the many souvenirs of the Senator, his last cane.
Many times he traveled with his wife or one of his staff. A German Shepard dog named “Lux of LaSalle’, was given to Schall, by a friend, Minneapolis businessman John Sinykin , to walk through the streets of Washington. The dog came from the Dog Guide school in Germany. Sinykin heard that dogs had been used to assist blind travelers in Europe since the late 1700’s. His hope was to start a school here in the U. S. for blind persons such as his friend Thomas. Lux earned a following of his own. The dogs picture was used to sell dog food. Another enterprising effort of the Senator.
In 1926, Schall and Senator Wadsworth, introduced a bill that would allow a guide dog to accompany his master on public transportation and other public places. Traveling back and forth between Minneapolis and Washington alone, Schall was forced to put Lux into the baggage car on every occasion. The railroads would not allow Lux to accompany his master into the main train or a private compartment. Schall got a special pass that helped Lux for several years.
Lux died in 1933. It was said that Lux, always a companion of his master, was left with a friend for a couple of weeks. Just before the Senator’s return, Lux died from not eating or drinking, pining away for his master. and was replaced with Rex. It was not the same for him, with another German Shepard dog that he had raised at his Lake Harriet home. Just before his death, another dog had been trained for Schall, unfortunately, Schall never got to use the dog that was to be a Christmas gift.
Thomas Pryor Gore and Sen. Thomas Schall, who were the two blind Senators, posed for press photos in 1932, with the new white canes and the contrasting red tip that would make it easier for motorists to see a blind person using a cane, while crossing the street. Thomas did use a cane, but preferred to use both the cane with his dog.
As an elected official , Thomas was bringing in $10,000 a year, in 1932, as well as receiving 20 cents a mile for traveling. A good salary for anyone, especially being the beginning of the depression. It allowed him to live well. Income came from other options as well for the Schall/s. While in his first term, Tom had his speeches bound and sold as a book to the public. The family owned a home at 2828 Portland Ave in Minneapolis that they leased out while they lived in Maryland. One of their tenants was Walter Ligget and his family. The Liggets paid $15 a month to live in the property, that had been allowed to deteriorate while the Schall’s were away.
Through his connections and status, he also was able to have his sons attend military college. Thomas Jr. entered into the Navy. In 1928, Jr. was a midshipman 4th class.
On December 19, 1935, Thomas Schall stopped on his way home in Maryland to do some shopping. While crossing the street with a sighted aid, Mr. Orell R. Leen, who worked in his office, they were hit by a car driven by Lester Grayson Humphries of Hyattsville MD. He was later arrested and charged with Reckless driving and manslaughter. Thomas Schall died two days later on December 22.
There were several witnesses to the hit and run on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. They said that, after hitting the two men, Mr. Humphries leaned out the car window and shouted, “He stepped out in front of me”, then drove on. In late January of 1936, a coroner’s jury quietly absolved Lester Humphries of any wrong doing. When it was discovered that Senator Schall had, just an hour before his death, dictated a six-page letter to Attorney General Cummings, outlining the ties between Minnesota politics, crime, the governor and Mr. Liggett, that was not transcribed because of the death of the Senator, it was brought to the attention of the Attorney General and the FBI in June of 1936, once again. The concerns were lost in the files of each department.
On December 26, it was said that over 1,000 people filed past Schall’s silver casket as it lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda. State offices were closed and flags flown at half-staff. In the second row of mourners at the Senator’s funeral, for all the press to see was Governor Olson, Schall’s bitter enemy. Schall was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. The state and the nation mourned the great loss of a strongly opinionated and tireless supporter of the poor and working class.
After his death, there was some talk of a conspiracy that may have caused Thomas Schall his life. Within a short period of time, three of FDR’s strongest opponents of the new deal, that included Senator Schall, died in terrible accidents. Some of his staff members asked for an in-depth investigation into the accident, but nothing ever became of this. The man who hit Senator Schall and his aid had no obvious political connections to FDR or his party. Senator Huey P. Long was killed a few months before, by an assassin at the state Capitol in Louisiana by the son-in-law of a rival. Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico, in a plane crash in Macon County MO., that was investigated, and was found to be an accident.
Back in Minnesota, it was believed that Schall was killed because of Schall’s vigorous support of the freedom of the press and calling for federal inquiries into the murder of Walter W. Liggett, the publisher of the Midwest American. Liggett had written many articles on organized crime in St. Paul and Minneapolis that included organized criminal activity of the then Governor, Floyd B. Olson, who was planning to run for Schall’s seat in 1936.
The conspiracy theory gained more support as those responsible for Liggett’s death were let go. Members of Liggett’s staff were being forced off the road or attempted hit and runs, similar to Schall’s case kept occurring. Some even alleged that state cars were being used to run republicans and those speaking out against organized crime in Minnesota. Until they died, the Senator’s wife and two sons firmly believed that someone in the Roosevelt administration had him killed.
With all of the political upheaval in Minnesota, Margaret Schall, had hoped to finish out her husband’s term and run for his Senate Seat. Olson was reported to be the heir apparent. But unknown to the general public, Olson had just undergone surgery for cancer and it was discovered he did not have long to live. Instead, Elmer Benson, a Democrat, was seated in the Senate to take Senator Schall’s place.
Senator Schall’s efforts paved the way for many other blind persons to pursue public office including New York Governor, David Patterson. The Senator’s political life was written up in, literally, thousands of newspaper articles that give us an interesting and sometimes contradictory view of the Senator and his views.
His sons, Tom Jr. and Richard Dick” both went on to be successful lawyers, ending up in Albuquerque New Mexico. Padget attended Port Arthur College in Texas and led an obscure life. She lived in Mexico for a while and may have died there as well. Margaret passed away at the Kings Rest Motel on 4th Street in Albuquerque while visiting her son Tom and his wife Lorraine in 1953.
Son Tom was asked to return to Minnesota and run for public office by friends of his father. He said no. Tom J. had been very close to the campaigns and day-to0day activities of his father’s job, he did not want any of that for himself.
Lillian Blanche Fearing was born the second of two daughters, to Marry Ann Ferris and Henry Fearing on November 27, 1863 in Davenport Iowa. At the age of 6, while playing with other children, she injured her eyes. It was believed that this injury caused her to lose much of her sight, but not so much that her family thought she could not get a good education in her home town. But an illness when she was about 12, caused her to loose what remaining sight she had left.
Almost as soon as Blanch, as she was commonly known by, learned to read as a young child, she began to write poetry. At the age of 9, one of Blanche’s poems was published in the Young Folks Monthly, out of Chicago IL. Little Blanche was well known in her home town of Davenport as the young poetress. She continued throughout her childhood to write poems for many magazines that were published as well as enter contests and won prize money for her efforts.
At the age of 12, one of her poems caught the interest of many well-known writers. She received many letters of commendation, including Oliver Wendell Holmes. Mr. Homes said in part, “There is thought enough and music enough and feeling enough in your little volume to win you the respectable attention of the critics; and I hope that the success of your poetical venture will meet all your reasonable hopes and expectations.”.
After she lost all of her sight, Blanche entered the College for the Blind in Vinton Iowa on May 7, 1877. She quickly became a leader in her school activities. Blanche roomed with Emma Magoon, Martha Ena Cassels, and Nannie Duncan. Roommates at the schools for the blind easily became family. Later, after Nan had to go home to care for an ailing mother, Adelia Hoyt took Nan’s place in the set of four girls. Adelia would become a very close friend of Blanche’s through the rest of her life.
Blanche became involved in the literary Society at school as soon as she was allowed. The Literary society met on Saturday evenings, keeping the children at the school, active as much as possible. In her Senior year, she took advantage of a special literature class offered by one of the teachers during free time.
But for Blanch, the school was also a place for her to challenge and create her own challenges. In the early 1880’s, there were four girls and four boys of the Literary Society who were most of the brightest children in the school and all about the same age. In 1884, they put on a play for the College for the Blind and the town of Vinton. This was noteworthy as at this time, drama was not a course or activity taught at the schools for the blind in the country. It would be several years before a play was performed again by the blind students at the school in Vinton.
Blanche got permission from the Principal, Thomas McCune, for the activity. It was to be a secret from everyone. Eventually, the other students began to know that there was something going on, maybe a play, but no one else asked to be a part of the adventure. Professor Thomas Slaughter, blind himself, was one of the staff that assisted the young people, and guided them through setting up the play, the rehearsals and the music that would accompany the play during scene changes and the intermission. The play selected was called East Lynn. Not only did the students have parts, but they also enlisted the services of another blind male teacher to play the part of “Sir Archibald”. Blanche played the part of “Lady Isabel”. Blanche had great fun, encouraging all of her friends to steel away in the evenings or on the weekends to some basement room of the college for the Blind, where they could rehearse in private.
On March 25, 1884, the play was performed by the students for the first time. It was advertised in the Vinton Eagle, the local paper that supported the school locally as well as across the state of Iowa. The townspeople of Vinton took pride in the school and were an active part of the programs, as many people from the town had a family member employed at the College for the Blind, or helped to build the school. The play went off as a great success, even though the weather had become rainy and turned the roads into rivers of mud.
Blanche took quickly to learning the reading code for the blind that was most popular at that time, New York Point. She continued writing poems and short stories for school, family, friends and the magazines that occasionally paid her money. But most of them had to be transcribed back into print, to be shared with the sighted world. An extra task that involved finding someone else to write in print for her.
Blanche was determined to make it on her own and become an independent person. At the College for the Blind, she was taught that she was just as good as a sighted person. Some of her learning or tasks, needed to be done differently, but that did not mean the results were any less successful or important. She took these lessons to heart and practiced them as well as taught them to the sighted world around her, the rest of her life.
In 1884, Blanche graduated from the College for the Blind. She was the Valedictorian and gave the graduating speech for her class. Each year, contests for literature and music were conducted as part of commencement week. Blanche took second prize and was awarded $8.00 in 1884, In 1883, she won first prize and took away $12.00. After graduation, Blanche moved back to Davenport with her mother and continued to write.
More and more of her poems were published in magazines and newspapers across the country. Her first book of poems, “The Sleeping World” was published in 1887. It highlighted 27 of her best works. Critics loved the book and gave it favorable reviews in many of the country’s leading newspapers. Before publishing, her publisher agreed to print the book, but only if Blanche would agree to be responsible to sell 500 copies. The book was a great success as far as Blanche was concerned and she did sell her 500 copies and more.
When Blanche returned to the College for the Blind in the spring of 1887 for the Alumni meeting and the Graduation of her friend, Adelia Hoyt, she was celebrated as a student who had done very well after graduation. The College asked her to speak to the Graduating class as one of their out-of-town celebrities.
Professor McCune told Blanche that she should go out, herself, and solicit orders for her book which was the custom at that time. If she traveled across the region to promote her book, he felt she would do well. Blanche was a pretty young lady, well-spoken and personable. But Blanche felt that she wanted to be known as a great writer, not a blind writer. If she went out on the road to promote her book, she felt that people would buy the book because she was blind and not because it was worth reading. For the most part, Blanche did not mention her blindness to those who she wanted to promote her writings.
Her need to make it on her own was very strong. In 1885, when she wanted to return to the College for the Blind’s graduation ceremonies and the alumni meeting, she did not have a lot of money for the trip. To pay for the travels, she cut off her long, soft, light brown hair and sold it.
After the graduation of 1887 at the College for the Blind, her friend Adelia Hoyt came to Davenport to visit Blanche during the fall. That year, Blanche had gotten a World Typewriter. This was a great asset to Blanche as she could now easily communicate with the sighted world and produce her poems and stories in a printed form, quickly, as well as independently. She enjoyed sharing and teaching this new technology for the blind with her friend Adelia. When Adelia wanted to publish her short stories, Blanche introduced Adelia to her publisher.
Blanche hired a private tutor from Davenport to increase her knowledge of Latin and German. As usual, Blanche exceeded expectations. She also got her friend Adelia, interested in Latin and German and shared many of her Braille text books with Adelia.
Helping her fellow blind was not limited to just her friends. In the spring of 1888, Blanch, her former teacher Miss Lorana Mattice and several other alumnus’s from the College for the Blind went to the Iowa State Legislature to ask that money be appropriated to build an Industrial Home for the Blind to allow the Blind of Iowa to pursue meaningful and financially productive careers. To prove to the legislators that blind people could do the same jobs as a sighted person, Blanche took dictation quickly and efficiently, from legislators on her typewriter.
Religion was very important to Blanche during her life. This was reflected in her works. During her early life, Religion was intertwined in community and school. After her graduation from the College for the Blind, she became active in the Christian Science church. This lasted only a few years and she was off exploring other philosophies of life. By 1890, Blanche had let her friends know that she had joined the Socialist party. She became a strong advocate of evolutionism and higher criticism, (forerunner of modernism).
In 1888, Blanche and her mother moved to Chicago where Blanche enrolled at the Union College of Law. She was the only woman in her class as well as the only blind person. Few women were going to law school at that time, but a Blind woman caused many to sit up and take notice.
Blanche graduated in 1890 with high honors. Her mother was a constant companion and reader. Her sister Mary also came to Chicago and took up court reporting to be of assistance to her sister. They lived together and worked together in Blanche’s downtown Law office space. Blanche became a member of the Illinois Bar Association on June 10, 1890. Blanche soon opened up her own law practice in Chicago. Interestingly, when the photograph was taken of her graduating class, Mrs. Fearing sat beside her daughter in the photo.
The practice of law was also an inspiration for more of Blanche’s poems. Her book, “The City By The Lake” was published in 1892. In 1897, she published “The Island Lily, an Idyl of the Isles of Shoals” This book of poems was inspired by her trip to Boston in 1895. Her novel, Roberta was said to be published in 1901, shortly after her death, however, it was advertised in the Daily Times in Davenport in June of 1896.
Blanche had gotten to know many influential women in the Chicago area, such as Mrs. Potter Palmer. Mrs. Palmer helped to get Blanche appointed to a committee of the Women’s Department of the World’s Fair. During the World’s Fair, Blanche gave a speech to those assembled.
The last year of her life, Blanche had been ill much of the time. Her aunt, Lidia Haworth came to live with the three Fearing women in Chicago and help with the housework. Sadly Blanche passed away in Eureka Springs Arkansas at the young age of 34, ending a great literary life as well as a promising law career. Her friends from the college for the Blind and back home in Iowa kept her memory alive
Today, her poetry books can still be purchased on Amazon.com.
Charles Abbott was born in Baltimore, Maryland in December of 1864, to William and Lizzie Abbott. He was one of the youngest of at least twelve children. His family can date their roots in Somerset, Maryland back to the late 1600’s when his Gr., gr., gr., gr., Grandfather, John Bounds, moved there from Virginia.
At about the age of 8, he went blind from an undocumented illness. He was sent to the School for the Blind in Baltimore, MD, where he learned the skill of piano tuning and also studied music. It may be that the illness that blinded him, also took the life of his parents as they both died near the same time in 1871 when Charles was blinded. The Abbott family went many separate ways at that time.
When he was 15, he went to stay with his brother-in-law, William Taylor, only 17 himself, who was working on a farm as a servant. Charles was not working there, rather, staying with William that census year and most likely attending school during the winter months..
In 1890, Charles traveled across the country AND took a job at the Iowa College for the blind. He taught piano tuning classes in the Industrial area. In 1895, about the time the college stopped focusing on full-time instruction for blind adults, he left the school and moved to Black Hawk County, Iowa.
Even after leaving Vinton, he still kept his tuning customers in Vinton, traveling back there several times a year to build up and maintain his tuning business. . Charles Abbott was soon well-known as the totally blind man who worked as a musician and a piano tuner in the Webster City, Laporte, Iowa Falls area. He was known to be an enthusiastic, intelligent man who made friends easily where ever he traveled. Mr. Abbott built his own house in Iowa Falls, just north of the, then, Ellsworth College, no longer at that location. By 1904, he owned it free and clear.
As a piano tuner, he would travel with his tools by railroad, from town to town, BY HIMSELF. Other than asking for directions of passers-by from time to time, he walked the streets without assistance, to earn his living. When he had some extra money, he would place an ad in a local paper, but many times, just leave a hand-written flyer on a board at a local post office, as was the custom at that time. To help him organize his appointments, he would have those looking to have their piano tuned, leave a message with a shop owner or at the post office where he had an agreement in the town. Charles would check in when he got to town with his local contact. Then he would walk to their homes or business, calling on those who had left a request for service. He would either tune the piano that day, or make an appointment to do so while in town, or on his next visit.
When Charles would travel to a town where he had arranged an appointment to tune a piano, if he got to the community early, he would drum up other business for himself, by going door-to-door, networking with those he knew in town and just asking around. Sometimes, this might result in a concert at a local church or meeting hall, as well, to earn a few extra dollars.
His memory was very good. He could remember the street layout in many communities as well as the residents, where they lived and some about their lives. He enjoyed conversing with folks in his high-pitched voice, at the local businesses.
Abbott also taught violin. Mostly, his music students were in the community that he was living in at the time. His classes were advertised and announced in local papers. At times, this was a big part of his income.
In late December of 1903, Charles went down to the train depot in Webster City, where he was working at the time, to board the midnight train to his home in Iowa Falls. A trip that he had done many times by himself. He purchased his ticket and waited for the train. At midnight, the Illinois Central train pulled in and Mr. Abbott started to board the train. A conductor stopped him and asked if he was blind and was there any sighted person traveling with him to take care of him.
Charles responded that, no there was no one traveling with him, but that was not a problem. He was quite able to travel by himself and had done so hundreds of times on the trains and in many towns in Iowa.
The conductor said that it did not matter. There was a rule on the Illinois Central Railroad that a blind person could not travel alone and that he could not let Mr. Abbott on the train.
No matter what Mr. Abbott said that night, he was unable to convince the conductor to let him on the train. There was no one at the depot that night who new Charles who could help him or another passenger that he knew who would vouch for him. So, Mr. Abbott went back to his hotel for the night.
The next morning, he told many of his friends in Webster City what had occurred the night before and how he needed to get to Iowa Falls to celebrate Christmas with his family. A friend of his said that he would help, but he could not take the time to ride all the way to Iowa Falls and back because of the holiday. So, the two men set out to the train depot to catch the noon train. His friend pretended to be in charge of Abbott. Abbott bought their tickets. They boarded the train, and just before the train pulled out of the station, his sighted friend jumped off the train. Charles proceeded to Iowa Falls and was able to get home and conduct his business.
But Charles could not let this matter drop. Immediately, he telegraphed the Illinois Central Railroad office and asked if there was such a rule about blind persons being unable to travel without a sighted person. He received a telegraph from the railroad, saying that , yes, there was such a rule in place. The rule was over a year old and that the railroad had every intention of enforcing the rule. The home office wholly supported their conductor in refusing to allow Mr. Abbott to ride, unattended.
Such an unknown and unwanted, rule regarding the blind would cause Charles Abbott and other blind persons who frequently traveled alone on the trains of Iowa, a great hardship. As an independent piano tuner, Charles could not afford to pay the way of a sighted person to travel with him, nor all the other costs of requiring a person to travel to other towns with him.
Charles had been traveling across the state and even the country by train for many years, most of his trips, by himself. He had never had an accident or fallen on a train. To ban him from riding, just because he was blind was wrong.
So, Charles hired an attorney, D. C. Chase, of Webster City to file a law suit in district court, against the railroad. In July of that same year, the law suit was settled. Mr. Abbott was given $100 to cover his expenses of having to bring a sighted person along on his travels with the Illinois railroad before the court decision. He also got a pass that allowed him to ride the Illinois Central Railroad at no cost, but most of all, Mr. Abbott was able to force the Illinois Central Railroad to drop that unfair rule requiring blind persons to be accompanied by a sighted person when riding their trains.
In the Waterloo newspaper for July 21, 1904, it was reported that Charles had won his case. Not only could he and any other blind person ride the Illinois Central trains without a sighted person necessary to accompany him, but the article also documented that he also got to ride the trains for free as part of the payment for the embarrassment they had caused him. He also won a substantial monetary settlement. The amount was not disclosed.
Money did not make times always good for Charles. In 1900, he married Esther Bowman, from Webster City, and the couple had two children, a boy and a girl. Just after Thanksgiving, of 1904, Charles was attacked by his wife after an argument over the punishment of the children.
According to newspaper accounts, Mrs. Abbott’s sister, Mrs. James Kepler, told Charles, when he got in one Saturday night after work, that Mrs. Abbott had struck the couple’s 2 year old with a whip, nine times. Mr. and Mrs. Abbott argued over the punishment. Charles said it was much too harsh. Mrs. Abbott hit and scratched him on his face severally. She even physically attacked her own sister several times. Mrs. Abbott pulled a gun on the family. Charles and his sister-in-law barricaded themselves in the bedroom. Mrs. Abbott was trying to break down the door by using an ax and a hatchet. By the time the police had arrived and broke up the fracas, neighbors could hear the whole event.. No one went to jail.
Charles left the home and went to live in the Cooper House Hotel in town, that night and for weeks to come. The next day, when his friends saw his scratched up face, they asked him what had happened. When telling his story of how his wife was a very angry woman and very abusive to him and his children, friends tended to take his side. Charles said that he never struck back as he was not the kind of man that would hit a woman. He also did not believe in divorce.
A few weeks later, Charles tried to file a bill for a separation from his wife and to gain custody of his two children. He also wanted to keep the money from the financial settlement from the lawsuit with the Illinois Railroad for himself. The petition claimed that his wife was cruel and inhumane. But the courts would not allow the separation under those circumstances, leaving his wife with no money. Charles had to file for divorce. As this could cause him to lose custody of his children and his savings, the couple stayed married.
At the end of 1906, Charles had turned inventor. Not only did he teach music, tune piano’s and perform at many functions, but he, as many of his neighbors did, raised chickens. Charles needed a non-visual way to regulate the heat in the pens so that his flock would continue to grow and thrive. He designed a heater regulator that had a bell that sounded when the temperature was falling below the desired temperature, or went too high for the chickens. When the temperature changed, it would break a circuit, causing the bell to ring and sound the alarm. He filed letters and papers for a Patten in 1907.
Charles Abbott passed away in January of 1924. His obituary appeared in many Iowa newspapers for weeks after his death because of his celebrity status from the railroad lawsuit.
Reprinted from the March 2015 edition of the Braille Monitor
Ethel Ulysses Parker, Jr. Ethel Ulysses Parker, Jr., E. U. to his friends, was a strong-voiced, determined, and kind human being, whom many people in the Federation had the privilege to know during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. He will long be remembered in the Federation for his strong, no-nonsense presence and the opportunities he helped to create. We know him as the founder of the preauthorized check plan, and his legacy lives on in the national scholarships awarded each year to blind students in his name and in the name of his wife Gene.
Yet, with all we know, very few of us really knew who he was outside the Federation. He spoke passionately on many subjects that were important to blind people during the time he was most active, and he was always in the forefront of promoting up-and-coming people he saw as having talent and energy that they could give to this cause we share.
I was fortunate to have had a chance to meet and talk with E. U. when I was younger. He graciously took the time to meet with me and other younger Federationists to get to know us. It was easy to feel comfortable with E. U. right off the bat; we felt like he was an interested grandfather, willing to listen to us despite our youth. He had a nice laugh and a gentle speaking voice in a small conversational group, but in a formal meeting, on the convention floor, or in legislative hearings, he had a strong, powerful, and persuasive voice and presence that left no doubt that he was a competent authority on the topic at hand. One of the first things E. U. told me about himself was what his initial stood for and how to say his name. Ethel was easy to pronounce, but Ulysses was to be pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, and he made a point of saying that this was not to be pronounced the way that the former general and president of the United States pronounced his name.
I thought that researching this larger-than-life man would be an easy task. Everyone in my circle of friends knew him. But it turns out we did not really know him but knew only that we liked knowing him. He left a thin paper trail, and there was little on the internet from which I could draw.
Ethel Ulysses Parker, Jr. was born on March 18, 1922, in Bay Springs, Mississippi, to Ethel Ulysses and Lula Mae Parker. He was the middle of three surviving children born to the couple. Mr. Parker, Sr. and his wife ran a grocery store in Bay Springs and were the owners and operators of an icehouse business. They did well in their small community.
By the age of seven Ethel Jr. began to lose his eyesight. By the age of nine he was totally blind. Mr. and Mrs. Parker decided to send their son to the school for the blind in Jackson, Mississippi. Each Sunday his mother would drive her son more than sixty miles to Jackson, and every Friday she would drive him back to their home to spend the weekend with the family. This was during the depression of the 30s when family incomes were tight, and such a drive represented a significant cost in gas, not to mention wear and tear on the car. It was hard for Lula Mae to send her son away to school, but she knew this was important for him if he was to succeed in life.
At the school for the blind E. U. did well as a student and was active in his school’s Boy Scout troop. After graduation he attended Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It is doubtful that any financial assistance for E. U. was granted by his state agency for the blind, but he pursued a higher education anyway. One must assume that a significant amount of financial support was given by his parents. His older sister Doris also attended college and graduated from Ole Miss, showing the commitment to education held by the family.
Again his mother would pick him up on many weekends and bring him back to school on Sunday evenings. He left Ole Miss in his senior year without finishing. This was late in the Second World War, many men were off fighting in the military, and women had joined the workforce. E. U. found it harder to recruit readers at the school, and this made it difficult for him to keep up with his classwork. When he left school, he still needed a career to support himself, so he decided to go to San Antonio, Texas, where he attended chiropractic school.
On completing this part of his education, he was encouraged by his parents to come back to Bay Springs and open his chiropractic business, even though there was an established chiropractor already in this small town. His brother-in-law and best friend, Joe, was off fighting in the military during World War II, leaving an empty house in Bay Springs. E. U. moved into the vacant house and set up his practice. Business was good, so he hired a secretary, Miss Imogene Price (known to many of us as Gene) a girl five years his junior. It was her job to take care of the growing paperwork and to manage other office duties while he was seeing patients. He must have found more than just her work satisfactory, because he married Miss Price on November 30, 1945, just after her eighteenth birthday. The couple had three daughters: Dixie, Teresa, and Genie.
After eight years as a chiropractor, E. U. wanted to change careers and became a State Farm insurance agent in Bay Springs. Soon after, the family moved their business to Laurel, Mississippi, a town on a major highway, which benefited business significantly. With E. U.’s personality and perseverance, he became one of the first seven State Farm agents in the state of Mississippi and was soon regarded as one of their top agents. Like all new businessmen, he needed to establish himself. This meant going door-to-door to sell insurance. Again Gene helped out with the paperwork, acting as his office manager and reader. Keep in mind she was doing this at the same time she was raising their children.
E. U. often hired high school students to work for him as drivers when he made his calls. It is a credit to his investment in young people and his judgment in hiring that two of the young men who drove for him stayed on after high school to become part of his staff. One retired from the business after working there for twenty-five years. A State Farm agent is an independent contractor with his own office. Over the years E. U. hired additional staff to work in his business. As his business grew, he spent less and less time going door-to-door and relied more on traffic coming to his office.
As an ambitious agent E. U. did everything he could to promote himself, even if it cost him a bit of money. One promotional item he had tailored for his firm was a tin box to hold valuable documents such as one’s State Farm policy. He gave one to each of his customers and was generous enough to give them to most people in the community. Such a box was useful, not only for retaining personal possessions, but as a way of keeping his name in front of the families who were or could potentially be his customers. As was the custom in those days, he also had ashtrays made for his State Farm business customers, along with pens, calendars, and other traditional giveaways, which he changed each year.
Each morning advertisements for E. U.’s insurance agency would air on the local radio station about 7 AM, and, when his youngest daughter would get up for school, one of the first things she would hear on the radio was her father’s commercials. She remembers this fondly and says that it shows just how much her father did everything he could to promote his business.
But in the Parker family it was not all work and no play for this energetic agent. Family was important to him and Gene. When their daughter Dixie was still small, the Parkers would go out to the lake nearby to picnic and swim. Gene was not a swimmer, so E. U. would take their young daughter and lead her into the lake. As Dixie grew older and the other children came along, he continued to swim with the girls. Even with the assumption on the part of the public that the children of blind parents are the real caretakers—one that is frequently communicated to their offspring—she notes with pride that, when E. U. came along, she never felt that she was the one leading or watching out for her blind father or her siblings. Along with a good sense of direction and confidence in himself, he was definitely “daddy in charge.”
One of the many responsibilities E. U. took on as a State Farm agent was to host an annual picnic for agents in Mississippi. They would come to Laurel and stay at local hotels, and the Parkers would host a big cookout at their home. This was usually followed by a swim party at one of the establishments they had taken over for the Fourth of July weekend. Later in life, when the doctor told E. U. that he needed to get more exercise, it was his love of swimming that found him putting a swimming pool in his backyard.
Becoming active in the community was also important to the couple. Knowing the movers and shakers in the community was important if E. U. was to bring in new business. Since he considered scouting to be a formative part of his childhood, he became active in the Boy Scouts, even though his three children were girls. He believed in the program and actively worked to help it raise money. He also made himself available whenever asked to do volunteer work for the organization and was honored with the Silver Beaver award for his participation and exceptional character. E. U. was also an active member of the Rotary Club of Laurel, Mississippi, serving for a time as its president.
In the late 1960s this outgoing man ran for the Mississippi State Senate. He spoke at many clubs and rallies while campaigning. Dixie, his oldest daughter, drove him to many of these and says that she learned a great deal about her dad by listening to him speak. On their many trips to Jackson, the state capital, E. U. would direct his daughter and other drivers around the city, since he knew it much better than they did. E. U. did not win a seat in the Mississippi State Senate, but he did a great deal to raise the visibility of blind people in the state and to redefine for many of them what blind people could aspire to do.
In the early 1970s E. U. learned about the National Federation of the Blind and attended the annual national convention held in Houston, Texas, in 1971. At that convention he was so impressed with the spirit and activism of the organization that he decided he wanted to bring the Federation to Mississippi. As usual E. U. jumped in with both feet and became one of its most active leaders and members. He helped organize the new affiliate, trying to get names out of the state agency for the blind in order to offer them the opportunity to join fellow Mississippians in improving conditions there but to no avail. At that time the agency was closely allied with the American Council of the Blind, and at times agency officials were cold and hostile to the creation of a Federation affiliate in that state. In the early 70s employment opportunities for the blind were quite limited. There was a sheltered workshop, Mississippi Industries for the Blind, and, while it paid better wages than some shops around the country, not much opportunity existed for advancement. The state ran a vending program for the blind, but most of its facilities were limited to the selling of snacks and soda. It was E. U.’s dream that bringing the National Federation of the Blind to Mississippi would serve to increase the opportunities blind people would have for other jobs and thereby increase their chances of making a good living.
With or without the support of the rehabilitation agency, he and other blind friends went about making their lists—friends telling friends, churches referring fellow church members, local clubs talking about the blind they had helped. Leaders from other states arrived just after the new year in 1972. They, along with others from Mississippi, began calling on people across the state. All told, a team of members from eleven states arrived in Jackson to work those lists and build new ones. On January 15, 1972, a meeting was held at the Downtowner Motor Inn in Jackson to organize the affiliate. President Kenneth Jernigan and board member Don Capps were on hand to meet, greet, and get to know the more than seventy Mississippians who came to learn about the National Federation of the Blind.
During the week of the organizing two of the team members were refused accommodations at the Ole Miss Hotel in Oxford. The refusal to accommodate them was based on the fact that they would have no sighted person to accompany them, that the hotel had steps to get to and from sleeping rooms, and that the hotel had no restaurant on-site and would not be responsible for their safety when they traveled the streets of Jackson to find nearby restaurants. Tackling this issue was the first goal on the new organization’s agenda, and that day they voted to take to the Mississippi legislature the Model White Cane Law that would allow blind people the same rights to public places and accommodations enjoyed by those with sight.
At that first meeting E. U. was elected as the first vice president and continued to serve on the state board in many capacities over the next quarter century. For a time he was the Mississippi affiliate’s president, and for many years he was elected to serve as the official delegate to the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
It didn’t take long for E. U. to be recognized as a national leader. Soon he was serving on the board of directors of the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Fund and was invited to attend the National Federation of the Blind’s board of directors meeting held over the Thanksgiving holiday. Gene came along with him, and all who partook of the Thanksgiving meal realized she was a great cook and remembered with fondness her corn casserole and the seasoned oyster crackers she brought to share.
Through the years many Federationists had the pleasure of staying at the home of Gene and E. U. Gene was every bit as committed to the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind as her husband, and it is encouraging to see this kind of commitment in a person who is sighted.
In the fall of 1974 E. U. approached the Federation with a fundraising opportunity that he thought could raise a lot of money for the organization. The State Farm insurance company had begun collecting payments for insurance premiums through fund transfers that assured that payments would be on time and trouble free. E. U. believed that we could do this organizationally, and all of us are familiar with the PAC plan. Though its name has changed and the options for doing those funds transfers have increased, the concept is the same, and it continues to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization each year.
This successful businessman and community activist made significant contributions to the organization through his work on the Resolutions Committee, and, when the Federation decided to establish a low interest loan program for adaptive technology, E. U. was one of the first three committee members to serve. As a businessman he observed that banks and credit unions were reluctant to make loans for specialized equipment because the collateral that equipment would represent would be harder for them to sell than cars, boats, houses, and more traditional items. One of the benefits of this program was not just that it made money available but that it also offered expertise about the kind of technology that would be most useful for the client who was applying for the loan. Although some of the new technology was foreign to E. U., he was certainly comfortable using the technology of his day, and his family remembers how he made it a habit to tape-record family discussions with his girls or catch them singing at unexpected moments. These recordings were his way of remembering, the role that pictures play in the lives of so many who can see.
E. U.’s involvement in organizations extended well beyond the National Federation of the Blind. He served on the Mississippi public welfare board, and he and Gene were one of thirteen family members who founded the Franklin United Methodist Church in the 1950s. At first the congregation met in a tent, but E. U. and Gene helped to raise money for a building and eventually a second building that was used as a youth center. For years E. U. served as a trustee of the church.
E. U. loved history. The Civil War was his passion, and he read extensively on the subject and had many cassettes filled with Civil War music.
With advancing age he developed significant back trouble. Even after surgery his pain was so severe that he could not climb steps. At times he used a wheelchair to navigate large buildings and packed convention halls. But his physical problems didn’t retard his intellectual curiosity and his determination to remain involved in the things that were so much a part of his life’s work. He continued to hire a reader who would come to his home each day to read the Wall Street Journal, weekly and monthly print magazines, and of course the daily mail. Sadly, E. U. did not live long enough to benefit from the NFB-NEWSLINE service that the PAC plan money he helped to bring to the organization played such a significant part in financing.
E. U. died on April 7, 1996, in Laurel, Mississippi. His wife lived until December 30, 2012. Evidencing her strong commitment to the advancement of blind people, for many years after her husband’s death Gene remained an active member, attending national conventions until 2008. Gene and E. U. are buried in Bay Springs, but they continue to live in the hearts of those who love them, in the statutes of the state of Mississippi, and in the history of the blind and our movement toward first-class citizenship.
from the Braille Monitor, March 2014
From the Editor: Peggy Chong is an amateur historian who loves digging through boxes of old records and bringing to life the men and women whose challenges and accomplishments have shaped and built the society we have inherited. What you will read here has involved countless hours of study, thought, and perseverance, and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it. Here is a bit of Peggy’s story, but, more important, here are the stories of countless men and women who have helped create the opportunities we have today.
I became involved with the National Federation of the Blind in Minnesota at the age of fourteen. I was young and naive and felt that I could change the world. By the time I reached thirty I felt that changing even my own family’s views on blindness was an impossible task. About this time the NFB of Minnesota’s offices were being remodeled, and we needed to clean house and rid ourselves of some of the old stuff. I was put in charge of this project. I went through old files and boxes, tossing old records and such, but occasionally I stopped to read a few items. Some of these I found myself reluctant to discard and returned them to the files.
When the NFB of Minnesota was beginning to think of what to do to celebrate the organization’s seventy-fifth anniversary in 1995, I thought I would go through the records again and write a few articles about our long and uninterrupted history as an organization of and for the blind. Over a three-and-a-half year period many of the blind leaders from the past, who died long before I was born, came to life for me through our records. They gave me a different perspective on my views of blindness and the impact of the organized blind. These men and women, through what they left behind, showed me what a difference they had made in my life. With much less than we have today, they lived lives that created so much for me, for my fellow Minnesotans, and, in fact, for all blind Americans.
They had no financial assistance from the government, they had little education, they did not have white canes or dogs when they traveled by themselves. Yet some of Minnesota’s blind men and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived successful lives by any reasonable standard.
Since my courtship with those original records, I have made it my special project to educate blind people about our rich history so that we can learn and continue to build on the successes of earlier generations. Because of the founders of the NFB of Minnesota, I have gained a new outlook and have found new energy to work on issues affecting the blind of our country. As the seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind approaches, I stop to remember how far we have come and reverently remember those who helped to start the organization we love and value today. I also offer to them a silent prayer of thanks, for I know they have made possible some of the wonderful opportunities I enjoy and all too often take for granted.
One of the seven organizations that made up the newly-formed National Federation of the Blind in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in November of 1940 was the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind, MSOB. Each of the representatives at that meeting was there by design, since each established organization represented there had already made a difference in their home state.
Minnesota had already established itself as a hard-working organization of the blind, with much progress to show on behalf of people in its state. The Minnesota State Organization of the Blind was born in December, 1919, with several blind businessmen who met in the back of Charles T. Gleason’s music store.
By 1940 the MSOB had built a home and center where blind people could live by themselves without restrictions. They had passed welfare laws securing a minimal income for the blind in the state. The MSOB was responsible for legislation that established the state agency for the blind and statewide home teaching services. White cane ordinances had already been passed in many communities, recognizing the right of blind people to travel freely in the places where they lived.
The blind men and women in 1920 who created the MSOB were piano tuners, weavers, and salesmen. They reached out to the many small groups of the blind across the state, asking that they join in making life better for the blind statewide. Unfortunately none of these small groups wanted to band together to work on issues outside their social club or small communities. Most of these groups were led by sighted people, but the MSOB resolved that it was going to be led by the blind themselves.
Unlike many other states, by 1920 Minnesota had already elected a blind man, Thomas Schall, to the US House of Representatives and would later elect him to the US Senate. Senator Schall was the first blind person in the state to use a dog as a travel tool. Blind children such as Evangeline Larson were being taught in the St. Paul public school system. The state legislature had already set money aside for scholarship funds for blind college students if they studied law or music. Public libraries in three of the larger cities had Braille collections. Adult rehabilitation classes for older blind people started in 1907 and were being taught during the summer at the school for the blind in Faribault. Those classes often had thirty-five students, both men and women, attending. Many of those who took the lead in the MSOB in the beginning were graduates from the school for the blind, either as young people just starting out or from the summer adult programs.
But much still needed to be done. Limited yet progressive efforts for the blind were happening in Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis counties, but nothing was coordinated or consistent, nor did these efforts spread from city to city or county to county. Many communities had rules that forbade a blind person from living or traveling alone. If they could rent an apartment, it had to be on the first floor of a building. Banks would not give a home or business loan to a blind person, since bankers assumed that a blind person would be unable to succeed at business and pay it back. Land and building owners would not rent business space to a blind person, the purported concern being they might burn down the building through their ineptitude. Employers felt they had no jobs that a blind person could do for a regular wage. Interestingly, however, they would hire blind people to canvas neighborhoods and businesses, walking by themselves, carrying and selling their pre-paid products on commission.
Families who had blind people were held financially responsible for them. Those blind people whose families could not or would not help support them found themselves cut off from family and friends and placed in county poor farms, where they were often the victims of many crimes and scams. In many ways adult blind men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century had fewer rights than a sighted child in the family.
With so much to do to improve living conditions for the blind, the MSOB created a long-term strategic plan. Their first priority was to build the Industrial Home and Center for the Blind. Their second was to introduce and support legislation that would improve the lives of blind people in their own and future generations. Their third priority was to establish a loan program for blind people who wanted to start their own businesses.
The Industrial Home for the Blind was opened in 1929. It provided affordable living space and a workshop for blind people in the metro area. It was located at 1605 Eustis Street in St. Paul. The sound fiscal management of the property and organization allowed it to announce to its members in 1935 that it was debt free. The addition of a building to provide more living space, an auditorium, and more was completed in 1949.
The Building Committee was established at the first meeting of the MSOB and began its work immediately. At the 1920 Minnesota State Fair the MSOB members distributed fliers explaining the organization and the need for a place where blind people could live and work. The fliers asked for financial support to start the fund to purchase land and build the Industrial Home and Center for the Blind.
In 1920 Frank Hall, the first chairman of the Welfare Committee, began a nationwide investigation of legislation affecting the blind. His committee also contacted the blind of every state where statutes had been passed, to discuss how well the laws served their needs. Were these laws practical and effective, or did they limit the options of those they were meant to serve? Learning from others, they adopted a statewide legislative strategy that they hoped would advance the cause of the blind without repeating the mistakes that had been made in other states.
As mentioned earlier, a loan committee was quickly established with funds being provided by blind members of the organization. Money was given to Frank Jordan, who established his rug and mat-making business. Frank hired many blind people. William Schmidt also received money from the organization to start a business. The contract did not specify a monthly amount to be paid but obligated him to pay a percentage of his gross sales. His idea to put vending machines in more than office buildings was such a success that he contributed many times the amount loaned to him by the organization.
When we look at the people who made up the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind, it is easy to see why they were eager to build a national organization of the blind and how much they contributed to it. Here are some brief snapshots of the pioneers from Minnesota who helped build the organization we have today:
Charles Gleason (1866-1932), known as C. T. Gleason, was a blind chiropractor, piano tuner, and business owner. C. T. lost his wife of eleven years in 1919 and was forced to give up custody of his children to his in-laws. He became the organization’s first vice president at the first convention of the MSOB on May 27, 1920. Piano tuning was a very profitable profession for him.
Around 1914 C. T. got a contract with the school for the blind in Faribault to work with its graduates and adults who became blind later in life. His job was to train them to be successful piano tuners. Gleason, a successful blind piano tuner himself, had established a successful enough business to have his own store on University Avenue in the Midway area of the city. He was so well known in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that, when people learned of a person who had gone blind, they would reach out to Mr. Gleason to help the newly blinded person. His contacts with students from Faribault gave him a unique look at the plight of the blind across the state. Charles felt that the blind themselves were much more likely to address the real issues of blindness than the well-meaning sighted people leading the mutual aid societies and service- providing agencies across the state.
By 1919 he had found many other successful blind businessmen who felt as he did. They, too, had experienced the discrimination and stigmas facing the blind of Minnesota. He proposed an organization of the blind, providing it office space and all of his contacts for the first decade of its existence, laying the foundation for the MSOB.
Frank Finsterbach (1854-1937) was the first president of the MSOB. A father of three children, none of whom made it past their seventh birthday, he and his wife Anna had the necessary time to devote to the new organization. He was the driving force behind the building of the Industrial Center and was central to making it a residence as well.
Blind from his early childhood, in 1880 Frank was teaching music at a school in Red Wing. He married Anna Smith, an artist with her own shop on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis. After they married, the couple moved to Minneapolis, and by 1886 he began teaching music from their home. Frank was an accomplished musician and would play organ or piano for private parties and in eateries around town. Frank was also a published poet.
Besides his interest in building the Industrial Home, Frank worked hard on a national effort to bring the Robins bill to a vote. If passed, it would set up a bureau to oversee vending stands and snack bars for blind people.
Carl A. Ianora (1886-1943) was an immigrant from Italy. He earned money as a musician. In the mid-1920s he got a job as a door-to-door envelope salesman for the Northern States Envelope Company. Carl was at the first meetings of the MSOB. He and his wife Mary had an apartment at the Piedmont in St. Paul for many years. Not only did he sell envelopes, but he also tuned pianos on the side. While Carl was not prominent as an organizational leader, his involvement is evidenced by his service on many committees and by the investment of his own money nurturing the fledgling organization.
Frank Hall (1888-1971) was elected to the MSOB board of directors in 1920. He too was a successful piano tuner. After marrying in 1913, he was able to buy a home on Xerxes Avenue South in Minneapolis, where they raised their three children—quite an accomplishment at that time. He led a protest at the State Capitol in 1939, where over sixty blind people waved placards protesting the cut in welfare payments to the needy blind of the state, a young program that the MSOB helped to start. He had a comfortable life and could have stayed at home raising his family, but he and his sighted wife both knew that their success was not based on Frank’s efforts alone. They felt that it was their duty not only to be an inspiration to other blind people, but also to use his position to educate the public and the social workers about the abilities of the blind when given an opportunity. At the 1940 founding meeting of the National Federation of the Blind, Frank was the delegate from the MSOB.
Otto Gray (1868-1950) was born in Germany and blinded later in life. He became a broom salesman in Minneapolis and was another of the founding members of the MSOB in 1919. He and his wife Mary owned a modest home on Blaisdell Avenue in Minneapolis. He was president of the MSOB in the 1930s and held other offices in the organization over the decades. In 1935 he had the new Talking Books and the record player demonstrated to the state convention and at several meetings of the MSOB. He felt the members should know about this new way of reading but felt strongly that it was just a fad and would die off soon.
Torger Lien (1899-1988) graduated from the school for the blind in 1917. He and his brother Peder, although not members until the late 1920s, held offices and served on many committees in the MSOB. After high school Torger went to the Twin Cities and worked as a peddler or salesman for many years. After his years of selling and traveling independently, Torger went back to the school for the blind during the 1930s and taught the students how to travel independently. As an independent traveler he served as a positive role model for the students.
Torger, who had been traveling with a cane before there were professional travel teachers, instructed students in the art of crossing the street with the cane down on the ground, while the professionals were telling their blind clients that they should hold the cane straight out in front of them to let drivers know they were blind. Torger had no certification, but he was one of the first blind people to teach travel to blind students, a concept some still find controversial today. One of Torger’s favorite pastimes was the identification of birds, and he taught many blind children how to listen and identify the calls of the many birds that live in Minnesota.
Walter E. Maine (1892-1956) had been adopted by a distant family member as a very small child. He was educated at the school for the blind and began his piano-tuning days under the tutelage of C. T. Gleason at his piano store. Walter was at the first meeting to form the MSOB. He went on to be elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind in 1950, but from 1941 on he was active on the national level, attending almost every national convention, bringing back information and new ideas to better the blind in Minnesota. Walter Maine was traveling alone by bus to San Francisco, California, in June of 1956 on his way to the national convention when he became ill. He made it only as far as Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was hospitalized and died ten days later.
Lillian Frendin (1892-1954) was the daughter of Swedish immigrants who divorced when she was a baby. Her mother, who was a hairdresser, made a comfortable living for the family that included Lillian’s grandmother. By the time she was in her early twenties, Lillian’s mother and grandmother had passed away, and Lillian was on her own. She worked as a masseuse for over thirty years. At the time of her death she left over $2,000 to the MSOB. She was the first woman elected to the board of directors in 1924 and was president from 1928 to 1930.
In other states white canes were being used to allow blind people to travel on the streets without sighted guides. In 1926 Lillian brought one of these canes to the board of directors. They were all so impressed with the device and technique that she spearheaded the crafting of language to create the white cane ordinances in Minnesota. She promoted the use of the much-longer white cane (extending to the sternum) among the members of the MSOB. Travel was important to Lillian.
For years she would gather groups of blind members and travel on the busses and trains to many communities across Minnesota to raise funds and promote the organization. When a bill was introduced nationally that would allow a blind person to travel with the assistance of a sighted person for the cost of one fare, she spoke out against supporting such a bill, since she felt that this would lead to blind people being refused travel if they did not have a sighted person accompanying them. Whatever short-term financial benefit there might have been to this well-intentioned legislation, her concerns were proven correct. Future generations would find themselves fighting for the right to ride by themselves, with bus drivers and station attendants declaring they must be accompanied by a sighted person.
Theodore Hohs (1887-1956) grew up in Minnesota. By age seventeen he was out on his own, working as a machinist. In 1905 he was a barber. He married Clara Hagel and the couple started housekeeping and had a daughter in 1914. Not long after Theo became blind, he lost his business, his home, and his wife. He reached out to C. T. Gleason, who helped him transition from the sighted world to the blind world. Theo moved just down the street from the Gleason music store and began work as a door-to-door salesman for any place that would give him the opportunity. He was one of the founding members of the MSOB who wanted to improve the opportunities for those blinded later in life. Sadly, he was never able to recover financially after becoming blind, and was barely able to support himself on his own. He worked through the 1940s as a canvasser or salesman, selling brooms and other items made by the workshop at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. He also sold products made by the blind at the Industrial Home for the Blind. This made him enough money to afford to rent a room in someone’s home.
Edwin Anderson (1902-1951) was an older graduate from the school for the blind in Faribault, who owned and operated a furniture repair shop in his hometown of Alexandria, Minnesota. This was a skill he learned while attending the school. Edwin was not an official leader in the MSOB per se, but frequently when blind people came to the MSOB saying they didn’t know how to handle keeping accounts, they were sent to work with Edwin at his store.
Eleanor Bentzine Harrison (1897-1984) served on the national board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind from 1955 to 1959. Born blind and educated at the school for the blind in Wisconsin, she was the wife of MSOB founding member Paul Harrison (1892-1982), a successful piano tuner.
Paul and Eleanor lived a comfortable life, owning their own home on Washburn Avenue South in Minneapolis. They could have been content to sit back and enjoy their success, yet for more than four decades, they served on committees, held many offices, and did the work that needed to be done in the organization. The couple retired to Wisconsin.
Christopher Easton (1878-1958) was born in Persia to a New York missionary and graduated from Princeton College with honors and a degree in sociology. He was a sighted man with drive. He was employed as the director of the New York Metropolitan Hospital’s Tuberculosis Infirmary on Blackwell’s Island. He was well known and successful in his field, honored for his research and the programs he introduced for the containment and elimination of tuberculosis in the United States. He was the superintendent at Randall’s Island Sanitarium in Pittsburgh and then became the director of tuberculosis education work in Minnesota by 1908, overseeing its growth and influence.
Christopher was appointed to the Federal Board of Vocational Rehabilitation. He had offices at the state capitol in order to have close contact and influence with lawmakers who would determine the funding priorities and legislation for those afflicted with TB. In 1927 Christopher lost his sight and some of his hearing in an accident. Almost immediately he lost his job, his prestige, and his usefulness in the eyes of his friends, employers, and those colleagues he had worked with over the past thirty years. Now he found himself treated like the tuberculosis patients he had once served. This was a major change in his life. His wife, a nurse, was now the breadwinner for him and their two children.
Christopher joined the MSOB soon after the onset of blindness and was elected to the board of directors. He brought his expertise in public health laws and policies to the organization. For several years he wrote letters for the organization to state officials and participated in state conventions, helping to direct the resolutions of the organization and the crafting of language in its legislative proposals. He secured the privilege of using Free Matter for the Blind when shipping materials in Braille, and this was a tremendous benefit for the MSOB and its home for the blind.
He was appointed to the Washington County Welfare Board in the summer of 1937 as a representative of the MSOB. When the Minnesota welfare legislation was declared invalid by Social Security in 1938, Chris, as part of the legislative committee that worked hard on the welfare legislation, took it personally. He wrote lengthy letters that were printed in the Minnesota Bulletin of the MSOB to defend the work that had been done by the legislative committee.
These are some of the historic figures who have provided me with a model for how to live my life and who have given me inspiration. I write this to show my gratitude and to say a word of thanks to these and so many others who brought wisdom, energy, talent, and foresight in forming the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind.
from the Braille Monitor, July 2015
From the Editor: Peggy Chong loves history and is determined to recognize those blind men and women who have played a role in creating what we have today. Here is her story of a dozen blind people who played a part in our formation. Some of their contributions were spectacular, and some were less than stellar. Even those who might have done better by their fellow blind brothers and sisters demonstrate that blind people represent a cross-section of our society and show once again that none of us do all the good we can or live the lives we would have lived if living life was as simple as constructing a story. Here is Peggy’s article:
The New Mexico affiliate came along many years after the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940, but its members did their best to catch up with and contribute alongside their fellow Federationists across the country.
New Mexico became a state in 1912, the forty-seventh state to join the Union. Although New Mexico is the fifth largest state in land size, it is the thirty-sixth state in population. The school for the blind was opened in the fall of 1906 in Alamogordo, a medium-sized community in the southern part of the state. Beyond the school for the blind there were few options for blind people. The state had no agency for the blind and only a few workshops.
The land of enchantment had few notable blind people in its early history. Elizabeth Garrett was quite famous. Although she was educated at the school for the blind in Texas, her family was from New Mexico, and her father was the famous sheriff, Pat Garrett, who shot Billy the Kid. Elizabeth Garrett wrote the state song, “O Fair New Mexico.” She was also one of the few blind teachers at the school for the blind in Alamogordo in its first decade.
In the spring of 1956 blind people and members of the state Lions Clubs canvassed the state, inviting blind people to come to Albuquerque and hear about the National Federation of the Blind. One Lions member in particular was helpful in organizing the new affiliate: Fred Humphrey of the Los Alamos Lions Club. The organizing convention was held at the El Fidel Hotel at Copper in Albuquerque, on Saturday, June 2, 1956. More than fifty people attended, including blind people from throughout New Mexico. Among those who joined that day were some members of the staff of the school for the blind, an institution that also ran the largest sheltered shop for the blind in the state.
One of the first national activities that the new affiliate took on was hosting the 1959 National Convention in Santa Fe. The four-day convention was from June 26 to 29. Hotel rates in the six official hotels for the convention ranged from $1.50 for a cot in a dormitory room of the Hotel De Vargus to $12.00 for a double at the Desert Inn. Some rooms had a bath, and some even had air conditioning.
Harmony, or the lack of it, mirrored what was happening on a national level. Because many of the NFB of New Mexico members were graduates of the school for the blind, the primary provider of services to the blind of the state, when NFBNM leaders wanted to introduce legislation to create a commission for the blind in New Mexico, dissension occurred; the school did not want competition. That institution tried to get control over the new affiliate and almost succeeded. When their efforts were thwarted, representatives of the school pressured the members of the NFBNM who were alums, causing many to leave the organization. All of this happened within the first decade of the affiliate’s existence. Yet this affiliate and its strong leaders maintained and strengthened the affiliate. Brief biographies of some of these leaders follow:
Maria Alvarez was the daughter of Abram and Estafana Alvarez. She was born blind, but her family was reluctant to send her away to school until the parish priest and the county sheriff convinced them that Maria needed to go to school. Maria was a graduate of the New Mexico School for the Blind in 1944. Her family home was in Socorro, New Mexico, and that is where she returned after graduating. In the 1950s she got a job as a typist and transcriber at the county welfare office in Socorro after attending a secretarial school in Santa Fe.
When the 1956 organizing meeting of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico took place in Albuquerque, Maria was there. She was elected the first secretary of the new affiliate. In early 1957 she was chair of the Resolutions and the Publicity Committees for the upcoming state convention.
Maria was employed as a typist at the state welfare department in Bernalillo County and served as the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico. In the spring of 1958 state president Albert Gonzales and his wife Virginia stood up for her when she decided to marry the state president of the Vermont affiliate, Clarence Briggs. The two had met the previous year at the national convention of the NFB in New Orleans. After convention they corresponded using recordings and decided to wed. Briggs came to New Mexico, and the couple was married at the Episcopal Cathedral in Albuquerque in May.
Marie went back to Vermont with her husband for several years. The couple grew their family and the affiliate. They moved back to Albuquerque for almost two years, where husband Clarence served on the board of the New Mexico affiliate. Apparently deciding Vermont was more to their taste, they once again returned there.
Walter Frady was a blind vendor from Gallup, who operated the vending location at the Gallup Post Office. He was at the first two state meetings and was looking forward to the 1958 state convention, but he died in late April of 1958. His wife Frieda attended the convention in his honor, expressing to all how much Walter would have loved to be there.
Born in Nebraska, he was a salesman for the Goodyear Tire Company for many years. While in his forties Walter began to lose vision. He kept on working. When he moved to New Mexico in the 1940s, he began working the vending location at the Gallup Post Office. Walter was active in the local community as a member of the Elks Club. He also was a past director of the Gallup Lions Club, chairing some of its fundraisers. In 1957 he and two other men from Gallup attended the international Lions convention in San Francisco. When Walter died, the new affiliate lost an energetic, outgoing member.
Owen Henry Shillinglaw was a business owner in Las Vegas, New Mexico. A severe case of arthritis caused him to lose his vision. The arthritis that affected him and his brother William was noticed when Owen was a young child, and by high school he had lost most of his vision. About 1930 Owen went to work for Alfredo Coca Sr., often called Cokey, at the New Mexico Fuel and Lumber Company in his hometown of Las Vegas. Owen did everything, including loading the burros to carry firewood and coal up the gravel mountain roads to its customers.
In 1938 he purchased the company from Cokey and renamed it Owen Shillinglaw Fuel Company. Sometime around 1948 he brought his father in as an office manager to help coordinate the new offerings of his ever-expanding company. This also allowed him to spend more time out of the office, expanding his customer base and the number of products for sale. In front of his business was a large, single piece of coal, about four or five feet wide. This piece of coal was there for many years as a symbol of his trade.
In 1950 a strike at the local coal mines occurred. It lasted about two months. To be sure that Shillinglaw’s could continue to serve its customers, Owen approached the Santa Fe Railroad company that owned the local rail yard and asked for permission for his workers to “mine” the rail yard, where hundreds of tons of discarded and sub-standard coal had been left behind when the railroads converted to diesel. He was able to provide work for men and keep his customers happy.
His wife Deborah would drive him to work many mornings because it had become physically hard for him to walk. Owen would check his Braille watch and time her from the time they left their home at 711 Dalby Drive to the intersection of Mills Ave. He knew how long it should take. Many times Owen would catch her going just a little faster than the local speed limit would allow and tell her to slow down. There is no indication that Owen received blindness training or read Braille, his trusty watch being the exception. The arthritis made it difficult for him to use his fingers for delicate work.
Owen took an active role in Las Vegas city council matters and hearings. He was one of those who addressed concerns that the city of Las Vegas was growing too fast and lent his voice to the need to extend the city limits in 1953. As a member of the Jaycees he served on many committees, including the city’s Distinguished Service Award Committee. Some of Owen’s pet projects were heading the fundraising efforts for the Las Vegas Hospital and the St. Anthony Hospital. He also led the community fund drive and as a member of the Chamber of Commerce led the “Short Line” committee that brought the Santa Fe Engine 1129 to Las Vegas as a centerpiece for the city park. He supported local sports teams, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, and more. He held a position on the board of the Arthritis Foundation and local Rotary Club as well. He served as a trustee and elder in his Presbyterian Church.
Owen was a member of the NFB of New Mexico. He took an active interest in the affairs of the organization early on. When the Federation hosted a three-day seminar in Glorieta over the Labor Day weekend of 1957, Owen and his wife were in attendance. There he met and got to know National President Jacobus tenBroek. In the spring of 1958 he and his wife drove to Santa Fe to attend an executive board meeting for the state affiliate at the home of President Albert Gonzales, even though Owen was not on the board.
In May of 1958 Owen attended the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico in Albuquerque at the Knights of Columbus Club. At that meeting he was elected first vice president. The new organization was attractive to Owen because of its work to better the lives of the blind of New Mexico, working to improve the training for blind New Mexicans so they could become self-supporting members, a goal he was proud to have achieved for himself.
Owen died on September 26, 1958. On September 13 he had taken a fall at the office. He had gotten out of the passenger door of a truck that he and his staff were loading with a display to transport to Albuquerque. Owen stepped on a brick, lost his balance, and struck his head on the bumper of the truck.
In 2014 the Shillinglaw Company still holds his name, even though the business has passed out of family hands. The name of Shillinglaw was well known in all parts of the business community, and the company was awarded many state contracts beginning in the 1940s. Keeping the name, even decades after Owen’s death, was good business.
Mark Shoesmith was born in Idaho. At the age of twelve he was blinded when the dynamite percussion cap he was playing with exploded in his face. His family enrolled him at the school for the blind in Salem, Oregon, from which he graduated in 1930. While attending the university, he became interested in sculpting, just to see if he could do it. It turned out that he had a real talent for this form of art. After graduation he did sculptures of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park and a bust of Robert Ripley. One of his sculptures was displayed in the palace in Argentina. One of his most famous pieces was a bust of the well-known tenor at the Metropolitan Opera, Lauritz Melchior.
Mark and his wife moved to New York to pursue his art career, but, as most artists know, the art one loves does not always pay the bills, and his task was made more difficult by the Depression of the 1930s. Mark began teaching at the New York Institute for the Blind and later at the Goodwill Center for the Blind in Dayton, Ohio. His craft damaged his hands so much that he had to give up reading Braille for pleasure.
In 1948 the Shoesmith’s moved to Alamogordo to teach art at the New Mexico School for the Blind and to head up the adult training program, the broom shop located at the school, where many of the students ended up after leaving the academic program. As he had in other locations, he became active in the community, joining the Lions Club and becoming president for a term in Alamogordo.
He continued his craft even after taking the position at the school. In 1954 he was commissioned to do a piece of art for the Blind Golfers Tournament in Toronto, Canada. He came highly recommended for the honor by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The trophy was carved from New Mexican marble. It depicted two eagles and two crossed golf clubs. Mark knew the dual significance of the eagles: first, eagles mean courage in many circles; double eagles also signify a score of three under par for any hole. Nineteen fifty-four was a good year for him artistically; he was selected to display his artwork for at least two years in Santa Fe.
When the NFB of New Mexico was formed in 1956, Mark was at the first organizing meeting. He spoke on the agenda as well. In 1958 he was elected second vice president of the NFB of New Mexico; however, his participation in the organization did not last much longer. As an employee of the school and the man running the broom shop, he must have felt conflicted when the Federation did not support sheltered employment, an occupation at which he was earning his living. During the 1960s, Mark would testify against NFB legislation to bring a commission for the blind to his state, doing this as a representative of the school. By the late sixties he no longer paid his dues to the NFB of New Mexico.
Because he was a blind person with skills and a position, he held influence over those who attended the school. Some students remembered him fondly. Those who worked under him in the broom shop who wanted to organize a union in the late 1950s did not. His supervisors told Mark to fire the union organizers “or else,” and he did.
Ironically, in 1972, when the Federation legislation to establish a training center for blind adults was established without a workshop attached to it, legislation which Mark actively opposed, he was appointed as its first director. This position he held for only a year, before retiring to pursue his art career.
Pitaci “Pat” Salazar was born about 1917 near Pajoaque. Partially blind from birth, he was sent to the New Mexico School for the Blind and graduated in 1938. He returned to his parents’ home and could find work only in a broom shop. He also sold blind-made items on the side to help make a living. But it was not enough.
When Pat took the bus, moving to Santa Fe in 1941, he had only $26 in his pocket. He got a loan from the Santa Fe Lions Club to set up a cigar stand at the capitol. At that time the Lions Clubs were securing locations for blind vendors, helping them with business planning, and, in the case of Pat, providing financial assistance to purchase stock. The state employment agency did provide training in vending, but it would be several years before a formal Randolph-Sheppard program would be established in New Mexico.
Within eighteen months the small cigarette and newsstand in the Bataan Building was self-supporting. Salazar had repaid the Lions Club its loan to him. He worked hard to build up his business, focusing on his ability to recognize customers after their first visit. After greeting them and engaging them in conversation, he would look for something about them to help him associate a name with a voice.
Salazar became a member of the 20/20 social club, where he served as an officer. This may have later turned into a local chapter of the NFB. He was a member of the St. Francis Cathedral, taking an active part in church activities. He served a term as president of the Holy Name Society at his church. About 1946 Pat lost the rest of his vision.
Pat operated the cigarette and cigar stand in the basement of the state capitol until 1952. When the capitol was remodeled, the state added into their floor plan more space for his business. His expanded offerings included coffee, sandwiches, and other items he could make in the small kitchen space allotted to his facility. Most people liked Pat and appreciated his service, but this did not spare him from the occasional break-in, resulting in the loss of cash and valuable merchandise.
Pat would hire blind people and others with handicaps to work in his business. During the legislative sessions he would often work up to eighteen hours a day, walking home long after midnight and returning as the sun was coming up. He was not a complainer and did what was required to make money.
A move of his business in 1954 to the Bataan Building allowed him to serve complete meals. When the Roundhouse was built and many state employees had offices and worked in other buildings, he would do catering for them by loading up carts and sending over the beans, chili, or whatever the special of the day was.
Pat worked to secure passage of what was called the “Little Randolph-Sheppard Act” in New Mexico. The bill was passed in 1957, giving blind vendors preferential consideration for vending locations on state property. To ensure that the governor would sign the legislation, Pat sent a note to the governor’s office, reminding him of the legislation and that his birthday was the next day. Pat told the governor that, if he were to sign the bill on that day, it would be a great birthday present for Pat. The bill was signed.
Pat worked for the State Employment Services, the department that oversaw blindness programs, where he served as a trainer for potential blind vendors. For a year he served on a committee that explored employment opportunities for the blind as telephone and switchboard operators for the Mountain Telephone and Telegraph Company.
Pat married a fellow student from the school for the blind, Eugenia Baca of Socorro, in 1958 in Santa Fe. That was the same year that he was elected state president of the NFBNM. Eugenia had been elected to the state board in 1956 at the first meeting of the NFBNM. His wife majored in music while at school. After they were married, she was active in their church as well, participating in the music programs, playing the piano and organ for church functions. She also taught piano and music from their home to those in the Santa Fe area.
At the end of 1976 Pat decided to call it quits and retired from his vending location at the state capitol.
Joe A. Salazar was born blind, as were several of his siblings. Their father did not allow the children to sit idle while at home. The blind boys had to work on the farm as much as their sighted siblings. Joe was an optimist, finding pleasure even in his farm chores.
The blind Salazar children were sent to the school for the blind in Alamogordo. There Joe discovered a talent for and love of music. The school for the blind was near the military base at White Sands. In 1942 teachers from the school presented programs for the military, including a performance in May for the USO. Joe, Remijillo Chavez, Silviano Chacon, and Serafin Griego had a band at the school. The boys performed as a group, and other students from the school also performed musical numbers and readings. Beginning as a young boy, Joe performed for his church, continuing to do so all of his life.
In 1946 he moved to Santa Fe, where his brother Pat had rooms at 212 De Fouri Street. Pat had graduated a few years earlier from the school for the blind and was operating a vending stand at the state capitol. Needing funds, Joe took a job as a gardener for Henry Dendahl, caring for the man’s many flowers and rose bushes. Having come from a farm, where plants provided food for the table, he told the priest, Father Francis, that he had a new appreciation for the flowering plants that provided so much beauty and fragrance to the world. Joe also said that he was surprised that he was paid so well for his gardening services.
Joe was one of the few graduates of the New Mexico School for the Blind to receive a one-year scholarship to the Perkins School for the Blind to continue his studies. He graduated in 1946 and, using the scholarship, went to Boston for the following school year. In the fall of 1947 Joe went to the University of New Mexico, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and a minor in English and speech. He was a member of the University of New Mexico Mixed Choirs. He had a wonderful baritone voice that was so extraordinary that every choir director Joe worked with commented upon it. As a college student Joe had few books in Braille, but sometimes he was fortunate enough to find some Braille music. To handle his reading load, Joe hired readers and used volunteers.
In the fall of 1952, just after graduating from college, he began teaching music for the Pojoaque, New Mexico, school. He was the first music teacher for the school system and the first blind teacher in the district. Each day he taught music and choral to over 150 students. Discipline in his classes was never an issue, though this is often the concern expressed by school administrators when considering the applications of blind teachers. Two students who decided to see if Joe could maintain discipline in his fifth grade class soon found themselves staying after school to clean his room. But Joe wanted to do more than discipline these boys: while they worked, he talked with them about common interests in basketball, other sports, and the things Joe remembered being interested in at their age. He was able to take two mischievous and sometimes rebellious children and make them a contributing part of his class.
Joe stayed in Pojoaque for two years. He then spent one year in Santa Fe, acting as the county school’s music supervisor and was also given the teaching of English as part of his teaching load. He then took his dream job at Santa Cruz. There he brought his love for all kinds of music to his students, and in 1956 he led a chorus of over three hundred young people from grades one to twelve in performing at an Easter presentation. He wanted to challenge his students and engage them at the same time. This he did by talking about the music, ensuring that the children understood what was unique and fun about even the classical pieces. In 1970 Joe got his PhD from the University of New Mexico, something he had wanted to do for many years. While in the Española School District, where he taught speech and drama, he would on occasion bring in one of the Talking Books that he was reading to engage his students and to show them what a good reader could add to a story.
In 1975 Joe was voted teacher of the year by his colleagues. He was a member of the Española Education Association, EEA. In 1978, after the EEA had negotiated an agreement with the Española School Board and the school board went back on its agreement, Joe was one of the EEA leaders who spoke out at public hearings. He tried to force the school board to restore the confidence and security of teachers. He knew how to work the press and took advantage of his leadership skills to help himself and those who were too easily intimidated by their principal and district officials.
Joe used Braille music both as a student and throughout his teaching career. Much of his Braille came from New Mexico Braille Services in Albuquerque, a group that encouraged its volunteers to be certified in the Braille codes by the Library of Congress. As noted earlier, he also enjoyed reading Talking Books from the Library of Congress. His reading interests spanned many topics, for he had a genuine interest in learning and broadening his perspectives on life.
No matter where Joe was, he wanted to be of benefit to his fellow man, especially his blind brothers and sisters. One of his neighbors was losing eyesight and becoming very bitter. Joe tried to help him, but, like so many people losing vision, the newly blinded man was not ready to receive help. Joe was persistent and finally got him to sign up for books through the library for the blind. Within a short time the neighbor’s attitude began to improve as he regained his ability to read and stay in contact with the rest of the world.
For many years Joe walked to Santuario de Chimayo, from Santa Fe to the holy church, a pilgrimage made by thousands of the faithful to the holy site, observing the Easter holiday. Joe said he did this for personal reasons: spiritual, intellectual, and physical—for the walk. In 1992 he, three of his grandchildren, and his golden retriever, Dooby, left the Holy Cross Church in Santa Fe at about 6:50 a.m. and arrived in Chimayo at about 10:30 that morning. He took no water for himself in the pilgrimage, but did take some for his grandchildren.
Joe was elected as first vice president of the NFB of New Mexico in 1956 and served in that office for several years. He met Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan at many events and was very committed to the NFB. He wrote for the Braille Monitor. He was appointed as the publicity chairman in advance of the 1959 National Convention. In this role he informed delegates about lodging and convention attractions they would find in Santa Fe.
In the late 1990s significant tension existed between the school for the blind and the NFBNM. Joe was the only blind member of the board when Director Kirk Walters was hired in 1996. Joe voted against his hiring. Then Jim Salas, another blind man, was appointed and two blind people sat on the board of regents during 1997. When a second vote was taken, he too voted to dismiss Walters, who was a controversial administrator. The vote in the summer of 1997 and the events leading up to it caused quite a firestorm, resulting in bad feelings that lasted for years. This issue was extensively covered in the Braille Monitor between 1996 and 2000.
Joe passed away in February 2016.
Serafin Griego Jr. was one of many blind children in the Griego family. He was born in Vaughan, New Mexico, to Serafin and Celestine Griego. Blind from birth, he attended the school for the blind in Alamogordo. After he left the school, he married Helen, and they had two children: a daughter, Maria Rita, and a son, Paul Vincent.
In the 1950s the Griego’s formed a family orchestra that played for many community and private events in the Santa Rosa and Vaughan area. The group was called the Griego Orchestra and was made up of Mrs. Maggie Griego on drums, brothers Efren and Serafin, and Salomon Mandragon, a fellow classmate from the school.
In 1955 Serafin moved to Albuquerque. An accomplished musician, he played both piano and violin. He became a founding member of “El Mariachi del Norte” in 1956, the first and longest-running Mariachi band in Albuquerque. The band performed for more than three decades.
Serafin was determined to be self-supporting and provide a good income for his family. When they had work, the income from their music was good, and playing was fun, but more was needed to meet the family’s needs. Serafin often played for local dances as well as events sponsored by radio stations KABQ and KDCE. He was also trained in electronics and worked as an electronics technician.
In 1959 Serafin was elected to the NFB of New Mexico’s state board as the corresponding secretary. He effectively supported many activities of the organization through his vast community contacts. In 1961 he was elected first vice president. In 1965 he assisted in the organization of a picnic for the blind at the Albuquerque Zoo, coordinating two busses to pick up people from different locations. He was elected sergeant at arms at the 1965 state convention.
At the time of his death, Serafin ran a telephone service from his home. He was a dispatcher for the American Auto Association. One October morning Serafin had a heart attack at his home. He was rushed to an Albuquerque hospital but died shortly after. He was taken much too early, being only forty-four.
Pauline Gomez was born into a prominent New Mexico family with roots in the state dating back to the 1600s. The Gomez family strongly believed in serving their community. Pauline was born with little vision and even it deteriorated over the course of her childhood. She was sent to the New Mexico School for the Blind when she was five, graduating in 1940. After graduation Pauline won a scholarship from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, to continue her education and to become certified to teach school. She was the first blind student from the school for the blind in New Mexico to win such a scholarship. She did an internship in Santa Fe at the public library, where she conducted educational programs for children and was praised for her work.
But when Pauline tried to find teaching jobs in the public and private schools, no one would hire her. Not to be thwarted in her desire to be productive and earn a living, Pauline then enrolled at the University of New Mexico in the fall of 1941 in Albuquerque, the first blind student to attend the university there. She became the first blind person to graduate from the University of New Mexico. Still no teaching job was offered.
If no one would hire her, she would hire herself. Pauline decided to open a nursery school in her home. On October 1, 1946, Los Niños Kindergarten School opened in the back room of her adobe-style home in Santa Fe. Eight children were in her first class. In those early days she managed the school, promoted it in the community, and single-handedly worked as its only teacher. Six years later, as the enrollment continued to grow, Pauline built a separate and larger classroom building on her property. The new building had a formal outside play area, a large classroom, an office, and an elevated area to allow parents to view their children while they were at school without disrupting the class or distracting from the tasks at hand. For decades Los Niños prepared the young children of prominent families in Santa Fe to enter the first grade.
Pauline kept her notes in Braille, typed up student reports, and used a tape recorder to keep track of student activities. Los Niños was the only preschool, school, or day care facility that provided parents with detailed reports on their children’s educational activities. To add to the special services that set her school apart from others in Santa Fe, she held parent seminars where strategies for educating young children and the benefits of medical inoculations were discussed. Her school also presented holiday programs that were open to the public and the media. Los Niños graduations included caps and gowns for the five and six year olds, these garments made by Pauline and her mother. Such above-and-beyond efforts caught the attention of the Department of Public Education, and Pauline was asked on several occasions to help the state of New Mexico write the policies, guidelines, and strategies on early education for the department.
Pauline was one of the blind people who helped to bring the National Federation of the Blind to New Mexico. She wrote letters to many blind people throughout the state, talking with them about the Federation in 1955. She attended the first organizing meeting in the spring of 1956. She was first elected to the state board as its secretary in 1958. Over the next thirty years she would serve in many capacities, including president for several terms and the national delegate from New Mexico on many occasions. She represented blind vendors in disputes with the state and also was an advocate for other blind people who needed assistance, whether they were school-age children or seniors needing people in authority to listen to them.
Passing Federation legislation was also a major concern for Pauline. Her father had served as governor for a term, and her aunt served in the state legislature at the same time as Albert Gonzales. With the many contacts she had, Pauline had a strong impact on the outcome of proposed legislation. She also developed the blueprint for the Federation’s legislative strategy that would result in the Federation’s most successful attempt to influence the legislature of New Mexico in the session that spanned 1966 and 1967. In this session the NFB supported six bills, all were introduced, and all were passed.
On a national level Pauline addressed several sessions of the National Federation of the Blind’s conventions, many of those presentations focusing on the need for an adult training center in New Mexico. She was also called on to translate from English to Spanish for international guests.
Pauline was a founding member of the Teachers Division in 1970 and received the first Blind Educator of the Year award from the national body of the Federation in 1987. Through her national contacts she brought interesting, non-stereotypic, and challenging blind people to the state to help demonstrate to the community what the future could be for the blind of New Mexico. In 1962 she helped bring a blind photographer, Harry Cordellos, from California to address the Santa Fe Lions Club.
Cordellos carried a white cane that was longer than the ones used by the blind of New Mexico. He told the Lions about the California Orientation Center and how it taught skills that helped blind people lead full and successful lives. This was done by preparing them for the attitudes that would stand in their way and teaching them the blindness skills that would let them accomplish those things normally considered to require sight. He talked about how difficult it had been to get into college, especially when officials learned that his desire was to become a photographer. He used the pictures he had taken in his presentation, lending credibility to the reasonableness of his goal.
In 1983 Pauline decided to retire as the administrator of her preschool. She stayed active in her many civic activities that had and continued to contribute greatly to the Federation’s success and prominence in Santa Fe over the years. Each year she walked and helped organize White Cane events in Santa Fe. In 1989 the Governor appointed Gomez to the State Advisory Council on Libraries. She remained active in all her church, civic, and Federation activities until her death in 1996.
Albert Torres Gonzales was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and is the most documented of all of the early NFB of New Mexico leaders. Albert admitted that he was a daredevil and loved publicity. Blinded while showing off at a training exercise at a military camp, he was sent to Washington, DC for medical treatment. During the year he was there he met other blind people who encouraged him to finish his education. When he returned to Las Cruces in 1931, he began classes at the New Mexico Agriculture and Mechanic Arts College, but not without a fight and intervention from a US Senator. After graduating, he spent some time in California, where he met a blind attorney who inspired Albert and helped to define his future. He went to Georgetown University, where he received his law degree.
Albert returned to Las Cruces, passed the bar, set up his law firm, and found that, although many townspeople said they admired his efforts, they did not trust him with their legal cases. Determined to succeed, Albert ran for the office of State Representative for Dona Anna County on the Democratic ticket. He won. He then moved to Santa Fe to be close to the capitol and to set up his law practice in that city. He hoped that people would be more open to hiring a blind attorney given his service in the legislature.
Gonzales served three terms as a state legislator. During his terms in office he tried to pass legislation to benefit the blind, even calling on Helen Keller, a fellow Lion, to add support to his legislation to provide for a separate department of rehabilitation for the blind. Though he tried hard, the state was not ready to embrace his faith in the blind or his ideas to better their lives.
His law practice did much better than in Las Cruces, but not to his financial benefit. Most of his clients were the poor who needed a bilingual attorney. These were the clients that other lawyers didn’t want to take on because they seldom could pay. Albert was often paid in kind, being given produce, labor to repair his homes, livestock, and even land. To get the cash necessary to pay his bills, Albert began selling insurance.
In the late 1940s he began to invest in property. He purchased a home for his family and rented out the home they had previously occupied. When given land, Albert sold or developed it. He soon was purchasing land in downtown Santa Fe. The rent from his properties was what made Albert Gonzales a wealthy man in his later years.
Although Albert had represented famous or infamous clients such as Reies Tijerina, a 1960s-era Mexican-American civil rights leader who led the raid on the Tierra Amarilla County Courthouse, he received little compensation. Nor did his high profile cases bring in the wealthy business clients he was hoping for. He served as district judge for many years, fining Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for speeding, and then a year later, holding them over for trial on a charge of espionage. Albert did his best to see that the press knew about his efforts and his successes, but still his clients were the poor of the state. Beyond the personal satisfaction of helping those who really needed him, the one benefit of having such a client base was that they were the ones who came out to vote for him when he ran for state representative, judge, school board, county commissioner, and other positions he held over a thirty-year period.
When the organizing meeting of the Federation occurred in 1956, Albert was front and center. He had helped publicize the meeting as well as getting some from Santa Fe to attend. He was easily elected as the affiliate’s first state president. For the next twenty years he held an office and chaired important Federation committees. He was a shoe-in for the new affiliate’s legislative committee and played a big part in making a pitch for the 1959 National Convention to come to Santa Fe. He worked hard to see that the convention was a success, and it came off remarkably well, given the small community of blind people available to work on it and their newness to the Federation.
Albert worked closely with national leaders such as Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and others to bring new ideas and programs to the affiliate and to its legislative efforts. News articles about the Federation were frequently in the New Mexico press, thanks to Albert’s contacts and his love for publicity. With his energy, know-how, and broad-based support, Albert helped ensure that the first dozen years of the affiliate were successful, even in the face of significant internal and external pressure.
Albert was still strong and vital in the 1990s, though he had by then lost most of his hearing. He continued to be active in the affiliate, served for a time on the board of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, and was eventually granted an honorary doctorate by the university that originally opposed his entrance as a college student, the institution now known as New Mexico State University.
Life was not always easy for the pioneers discussed here, but they managed to be successful despite the perceived limitations imposed by their blindness. They did all of this without formal programs to help them, against the resistance of institutions of higher education to accept them, and without much of the technology we take for granted today. They were not content to create quality lives for themselves, foolishly proclaiming to the world that they had been given nothing and had done it all on their own. Instead, they gave a part of their treasure, time, and talent to helping other blind people. They certainly understood that this effort would in some measure help them, but they did not argue about whether it takes a village to help the blind or whether it takes the blind to help make a hospitable village. The work demanded concrete action, and this is what they gave. We in 2015 stand on their shoulders. Let us do what we can to make them proud and lend our imagination, our treasure, and our hearts to advancing the opportunities for blind people as these pioneers did for us.
Throughout our country’s history, each state in the union had a very different approach to addressing the needs of the blind in their state. So did the blind persons in each state have a unique view on what was needed to improve the lives of the blind. Iowa was unique as it had a long list of energetic, successful blind persons who made significant contributions to the overall lives of the blind in the U. S., the state in general and blind people’s place in history. Sadly much of it is now forgotten and as you will read later on, destined to repeat itself.
We as blind people often feel we are the “first” to do a certain job, have a certain skill, or attempt a certain feat. But were we?
Those who attended the Iowa Asylum, later known as the Iowa College for the Blind, through the late 1800’s, became teachers, lawyers, piano tuners, musicians, switchboard operators, politicians, farmers and lecturers, to name a few of their occupations. To do so, many had to leave the state to find employment. It was interesting to note that the education of the blind was superior to many states, yet, public attitudes about their capabilities did not transfer into the employment arena. They and fellow alumnus’s wanted to change the employment outlook for the blind of Iowa, within its borders. Each year around graduation, many of the former students came back for graduation of their friends and met as an informal group. By the mid 1880’s, the alums and the blind teachers at the College for the Blind in Vinton were strongly advocating to bring about an official organization to address many issues effecting the graduates as well as those entering into the school.
In 1886, The College Alumni Association was formed. The constitution of the Alumni Association of the College for the Blind, printed in the Vinton Eagle, section 2 read as follows, The object of this association shall be the improvement socially, morally and intellectually of its members and to stimulate and perpetuate a lively interest in everything pertaining to our alma mater.
Also noted in the constitution were membership requirements. All students who completed in whole or in part, courses at the school and were not dishonorably discharged were eligible for membership. Teachers were honorary members. But many of the current teachers did take part as full-fledged members as they themselves were former students and graduates of the school in earlier years.
Many of the graduates, after leaving the school were not finding work in Iowa that would allow them to support themselves. Some classmates were finding employment in other states, such as James Muirhead who taught at the Arvilla Academy in Arvilla North Dakota, and Lillian Blanche Fearing who attended Law School in Chicago and became one of America’s first female attorney’s, let alone a woman blind attorney. But too many of the former students, wasted away at the rural farms of family.
At the annual meeting of the Alumni Association in 1886, serious plans to bring about an Industrial Home for the blind of Iowa were discussed and planned. A committee of Laura Minkler, Lorriana Mattice, Mrs. M. M. Boyce, Julie Davis, and Blanche Fearing were appointed to begin raising money for the project as well as to gather information that could be presented to the Iowa legislature to bring about the home. It was also decided that the funds raised, would be held by the College for the blind. Members felt that all parts of the blind community, the school and the blind themselves, working together with the state school, legislature and the public could only enhance the efforts and credibility of the blind. This project was such a noble one as far as the members were concerned, everyone would want to be a part of bringing it to fruition. Once the Alumni got everything in place and it would become a reality, the Alumni Association, feeling they themselves could not run it as well, would turn everything over to the state of Iowa to operate. The Industrial Home for the Blind was closed in seven years, in 1900 due to poor management. Alumnus’s reported back that the sighted people running the Home treated blind people as if they were children and not mentally capable. It was worse than a poor house.
In 1903, the Alumni Association felt it was time to include other blind persons from around the state who had not attended the College for the Blind but shared their desire to better the lives of the blind, into the organization. Many of the old-time members had become active in national movements to broaden the opportunities of the blind of the U. S., bringing back news and information to alumnus’s and focusing on more than just school activities. So the organization was reconstituted and the Iowa Association of the Blind, (IAB) was formed.
In 1907, it was decided that the IAB would hold its annual convention at the College for the Blind in Vinton, during graduation week. For decades afterwards, this would be the case. During the first several decades, the conventions were held in the mid-week. Later, by the 1950’s conventions would start on a Thursday and go through Sunday.
In 1915, again, visitors from other states came to the annual convention of the IAB. That year, over 100 delegates were in attendance. Miss Pearl Howard of Watertown MA, talked to the assembly about the uniform type committee for a unified Braille code. Miss Howard, a former graduate of the Iowa College for the blind, now was actively working on the unified type committee and had traveled to England to meet with the blind of that country. She was the Iowa Representative on the committee and was also the Iowa representative to the 1915 annual convention of the American Workers for the Blind, founded in 1895, an organization that many of the IAB had great hopes for in its early years. Through her connections, she met up-coming blind leaders such as Newell Perry that may have effected much of her beliefs.
At the Alumni meeting in June of 1919, the Vinton Eagle noted the successful graduates of the school and others, who were in town for the annual meeting. They included. Frank Oertel, a lawyer and state legislator, L. N Muck, of Nebraska an editor of a newsletter for the blind, Two physicians, Dr. Clark of Des Moines and Dr. Macklen of Anita, Mr. Hoduk who served his country during the first World war as a musician in the Army band in France for 16 months. There were ministers, piano tuners, musicians and much more that came to the Alumni meeting that year. A higher percentage of the graduates were self-supporting that year than ever before.
In 1921, there were more than 400 in attendance at the annual meeting of IAB, as there was also a meeting of the American Workers for the Blind national convention held in conjunction. After much discussion, programs were begun that resulted in the birth of the American Foundation for the Blind. IAB members, some leaders in the AAWB, felt that networking nationally, all would benefit. Yet, much stayed the same in Iowa for the blind.
Legislation developed and crafted by the IAB, in the early 1920’s resulted in the Iowa Commission for the Blind being formed in 1926. Once again, the Commission was not on the high priority list of Iowa state government officials and it took over a year to get the commission board in place. Unfortunately, once again, the new commission became the project of sighted society women and the Women’s Clubs, not run by the blind or strongly influenced by the blind of Iowa. Programs were set up for blind women to hem tea towels and the like in their homes. Busy work that, once again, led to non-self-supporting careers.
Members of the Des Moines Chapter of the IAB met with Commission representatives to ask that Braille be taught to its clients. The request was refused. Members asked for a training center to be established in Des Moines. The request was refused. Blind IAB representatives were told by the Commission that the costs of these efforts would not bear fruit as the blind could not really work and car fare was expensive. The Commission did however agree to support legislation that would bring a pension for the blind of Iowa.
Training for the adult blind was still a strong concern for the association. IAB members worked with the School for the blind to bring about adult summer training programs for newly blinded adults. Several members helped teach these summer classes. In 1930, at least 26 adult students came for a six-week summer school class for the adult blind of the state, to learn blindness skills such as braille, typing, personal management and how to travel as a blind person. Many blind adults benefited from these classes such as Freemont Clark of Wadena who came in 1933 to learn the skills of blindness after losing his sight in a dynamite explosion while he was building a bridge.
Another big push in the 1930’s was a pension for the blind bill that was written by IAB member Charles Lastrup of Council Bluffs, and introduced in the Iowa legislature for the 1937 year. The pension would give blind persons a $50 a month check from the state. This did not pass. John Gifford of Spencer Iowa was President of the Association that year.
In 1941, the IAB received a letter from the newly formed, National Federation of the Blind requesting they consider membership in the national organization. Members of the IAB had been active on a national scene for years. They had seen how, when trying to be “cooperative”, working with agencies and sighted professionals, the blinds; efforts were too often taken over and altered for the “professionals” and not the blind people who had started the programs, or the blind they purported to serve. Over the decades, so many of the IAB programs with high hopes and aspirations, were turned into feel-good charity programs run by the sighted, that did little to improve the lives of the blind of Iowa. As a nation-wide, self-governing organization of the blind was right in line with the ideals of the IAB, the membership voted to join the Federation in 1941.
Members of IAB, at that time included Henry Schluntz,
Henry F. Schluntz, (1897-1972) was a graduate of the College for the blind, class of 1921. He went to the Palmer Chiropractic School in Iowa and opened his own practice as a chiropractor in Keystone Iowa, his home town.
Henry knew it would take a lot of work on his part to bring in the patients for his business. He hired a driver to drive him to the homes of potential and current clients all across the immediate counties. The first few years of his business, he did not make a lot of money, but he built a strong base for his business that later made him a millionaire.
Henry married his high school sweetheart, Florence Reeves. The couple later divorced and he married Pauline Pirtle, also a former student of the College for the Blind. Both of his wives, blind as well, worked in his offices, making appointments, following up on patients and helping their husband promote his business. They were truly partners in the chiropractic office.
Each year, when Henry and his family returned to Vinton for the IAB meetings, he took every opportunity to work with students, graduates and fellow blind to find a path to employment. He would council many on the type of education they would need, but mostly, explaining that to get anywhere, they had to work harder as a blind person to convince others that they, a blind person could do the job. He also told them they had to become involved in their community. People had to see them out and about and doing the same things as their fellow sighted neighbors, or they would not become a success in their endeavors.
Through his example, Henry helped other blind persons in Iowa become Chiropractors, such as William Hale, Wallace Schroeder and Julius Sixta. .
Later, Henry bought a farm and became a farmer as well. Their rural home was often the site of large gatherings for family and friends.
If the Palmer School of Chiropractic sounds familiar, it is because it is. Palmer did not learn its lesson from history, or more than likely, they just forgot there had been blind students there in the past. in 1964, when the Palmer Chiropractic school in Davenport had stopped graduating blind students. Palmer had changed its standards, requiring a graduate to visually look at x-rays and took their discriminatory cause to the American Chiropractic Association, (ACA) hoping to make their requirements, a national standard, thus banning all blind persons from becoming chiropractors. Another Iowa chiropractor, Julius Sixta (1905-1990) stepped up to bring attention to the fact that many blind chiropractors, including those who had graduated from Palmer, such as his role model, Henry Schluntz, had done very well with no complaints from their patients. Sixta, along with Dr. Richard Bissland of Eldridge, Iowa, led a committee to educate the participants at the Denver 1964, ACA national convention, as well as the public and the ACA about the capabilities of the blind in the chiropractic field. Sixta worked with the federation, Dr. Jernigan and other Federation leaders to craft legislation meant for federal and state laws, that would forbid discrimination on the basis of blindness that would be introduced federally, if the ACA did not change its mind. . Both Dr.‘s were members of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.
History would repeat itself again, and again. See a press release from June 27, 2014 at https://nfb.org/national-federation-blind-applauds-historic-iowa-supreme-court-decision, for more details on Aaron Cannon’s battle with Palmer.
In 1956, over 160 delegates attended the Alumni Association’s convention where, once again Schluntz’s was re-elected President. His efforts and that of others did much to bring Dr. Kenneth Jernigan to Iowa to run the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
In 1963, Henry sold his successful business after 39 years. The couple moved to San Diego, California. Henry passed away there on March 3, 1972.
The National Federation of the Blind of Iowa established an award in his honor after Henry left Iowa. The Henry F. Schluntz award was given at the annual convention of the NFB of Iowa since 1968. The first winner was Judy Young. Other winners included Patricia Schaaf-Maurer in 1972.
William Klontz (1902-1972) William was a graduate of the 1922 class of the College for the Blind. After leaving Vinton, he wished to continue his education but had little money to do so. In 1925, he took classes over the radio.. Iowa Radio Education had programs that allowed many people who would not be able to attend a college, to earn college credits through their radio programming. Each class session, William would put on headphones for his radio. He would type his notes and classwork that he would later mail into the radio instructor. These course credits would transfer to Iowa Universities.
In 1928, he graduated from Moody Bible College, but found no work in the religious field. He opened his own music store in Waterloo Iowa that he ran for several years. In the 1960’s he became a Randolph Shepherd Vendor, having the stand at the Waterloo Post Office.
Klontz also held many offices in the Iowa Association of the Blind almost till his death in 1972. As did his wife, Lelia. William had married Lelia Clark, graduate of the College for the Blind in 1927. Both of them had an active role in the IAB and in the National Federation of the Blind. One year alone, Klontz was said to have brought 7 people from his area alone to the state convention. In their local chapter in Waterloo, the Klontz’s worked diligently on educating the public and fundraising. With money their chapter raised, it took out ads in the local papers explaining the white cane law to the motorists of the area. He was articulate in print and in person, when talking to others about blindness and the Federation.
William was a fantastic fundraiser. Through the 1950’s and 60’s, the White Cane Drives in Waterloo would bring in $1,000 or more. His Waterloo Chapter would keep half the funds and send the rest to the state affiliate.
Lester Lelan, (1901-1986) Another leader in the IAB was Lester Lelan. He too was a graduate of the Class of 1921 at the College for the Blind. With his excellent academic record, his blindness skills such as braille and writing on a typewriter with great accuracy, he was admitted into the Teachers College in Cedar Falls, now known as University of Northern Iowa. He did well at school. But upon graduation, he found that no one would hire him as a teacher because he was blind and would not be able to find his way around a classroom.
Ever the ambitious individual, Lester knew that he had to find employment to show that he could be successful. In the summer of 1924, Lester began to sell typewriters, door-to-door in the Cedar Falls and Waterloo area. A tool he knew very well, the value of. He found it rather ironic that a sales job where he had to go to strange neighborhoods every day, WALK DOWN DIRT ROADS, go into strangers homes and carry around at least two typewriters and supplies, should be better suited for a blind person than a teaching job in the same classroom, with the same students, every day.
In 1929, Lester did get a job with the Wisconsin School for the Blind In Janesville to teach the teachers. It was a short contract to instruct the music staff at the School for the blind on the best strategies to teach music to blind students. Although he was a life-long teacher in most respects, it was the only “teaching” job that he ever had.
By the early 1930’s it was clear that teaching was not going to happen, in the way he had hoped. He became the owner of Lelan Music store in Cedar Falls until about 1947. Through his store, he sold music, fixed and sold musical instruments, promoted new and upcoming artists, including many students from the College for the Blind.
Lester was active in his community, always keeping his ears open for an opportunity for himself or a fellow blind person. He knew the value of the printed media and used it to promote his activities, store and musicians.
William C. Hahle, (1904-1975) William went blind at age seven. He attended the College for the Blind in Vinton, specializing in Piano Tuning. He learned the skills of blindness there such as braille and typewriting.
After Vinton, He attended the Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. To support himself through college in Cedar Falls, he tuned piano’s, a craft he learned at the College for the Blind. He had contracted with many individuals and churches to maintain over 40 piano’s to keep in tune to allow him a fairly stable income while at school. William then went to the University of Iowa Law School where he graduated in 1933.
In order to get through school, “Bill” as his friends were calling him then, recruited friends to read to him. He had to pay for some of their time, not just rely on them to volunteer. Readers were a good experience for him as it prepared him to be the boss in his law offices later on when he hired staff to read and take care of the clerical work. He took notes in braille during the lectures that he would use to study from later on.
After Law school, he moved to Summer Iowa. There he opened his first law practice in the fall of 1933. By 1946, he would expand to two offices in the area. William was a democrat and won the election to be Bremmer County’s District Attorney in 1940, an elected position he held for six years. He also served as the City Attorney for many years. While in that position, he prosecuted a man, in a high profile case, for the murder of Glenn Winchell, a Waverly Utility guard in 1943.
To enhance his wealth, he bought and rented out property. Not a big sideline, but Bill had no public assistance or retirement to rely on other than what he created for himself. Income property would allow him a “retirement fund”, if you will.
William served on the IAB board in a variety of positions including president, was elected delegate to the National convention in New Orleans in 1957,, as well as chaired many events and committee’s in the IAB. He enjoyed speaking to groups about blindness and served eight years on the board of the Iowa Commission for the Blind soon after Jernigan first came to Iowa.
His particular specialty was the legislative committee. But he also loved to give back to the students at the Iowa School for the Blind through his involvement with the IAB and on the Iowa Advisory Committee for the Blind. Klontz was willing to create cooperative working conditions in the blindness community, but he was willing to fight for what was right,, rather than compromise.
He took an active role in his community and church as well. He was president of the Brotherhood at the St. John’s Lutheran Church in Summer. He was also a member of the Summer Rotary Club and a past-president of the Summer Community Club that, while he was president undertook many fundraising activities to raise money for a local hospital.
Julius Clarence Sixta(1905-1990) and Cecile Hunter(1905-1939)
Julius was born on Feb 8, 1905, the oldest son of Joseph and Emma Sixta near Ocheydan, Iowa. In his late teens, Julius had an accident that caused his blindness. The family sent him right away, to the College for the Blind in Vinton where he attended classes for at least six years as an older student. He became fluent in Braille taking his notes and re-copying them. Sometimes so well that other blind students would want to borrow his notes to study. Braille served him well in school and later in life.
Julius Graduated from the College for the Blind in 1931 along with Cecile Hunter. He then attended the National College of Drugless Physicians in Chicago Illinois, Graduating in June of 1933. During his time in Chicago, he spent six months practicing Chiropractic medicine at a General Health Clinic.
Cecile Hunter was born in 1905 as well. She lost her vision as the result of a childhood illness. She too became a student at the College for the blind at an older age than most children. After her graduation from Vinton, Cecile attended the College of Massage and physical Therapy also in Chicago where she graduated in March of 1933 and became a massage therapist.
The couple were married at her parents’ home on September 28, 1933. They moved to Spencer Iowa where they both set up their home and Chiropractic and Massage therapy business at 560 N. Main Street. Many patients remarked that “Doc” as he was known, had a soft and gentle nature that put clients at ease as well as ensuring they wanted to come back.
Another way to bring people into his business was to hold open houses or “Free Clinics” to bring in new patients. The couple would hold the clinics on a Saturday, offering free x-rays as well as a first checkup. This gave people a chance to see the couple in action and decide if they would trust the blind chiropractor.
In 1938, the couple had a daughter, JoAnn. Also in their busy household, were renters. IN 1940, there were three renters. Additional income from the renters made life comfortable, financially for the family.
Tragedy struck Cecile and she passed away suddenly in 1939. Their nurse from their offices, Lucille helped in raising “Doc’s” daughter. They soon were married and had two more children, Barbara and Mary.
Julius and Lucille bought a cabin on Lake Pocahontas. The family liked to stay there in the summer and would hold large picnic’s for family and friends. They often rented out their cabin for others to enjoy
The Sixta’s were active in their church and were, for many years members of the First English Church in Spencer and also were known to give generously of their treasure. Julius did well with his business and invested money in the local Farmer’s Co-op, supporting his home community and neighbors, as well as earning additional income.
Julius had great blind role models such as Henry Schluntz, another blind Chiropractor in Iowa. He did not forget how important the blind role models were for him. So, in 1964, when the Palmer Chiropractic school in Davenport had stopped graduating blind students. Palmer had changed its standards, requiring a graduate to visually look at x-rays and took their discriminatory cause to the American Chiropractic Association, (ACA) hoping to make their requirements, a national standard, thus banning all blind persons from becoming chiropractors, Julius stepped up to bring attention to the fact that many blind chiropractors, including those who had graduated from Palmer, had done very well with no complaints from their patients. He, along with Dr. Richard Bissland of Eldridge, Iowa, led a committee to educate the public and the ACA about the capabilities of the blind in the chiropractic field. The crafted legislation meant for federal and state laws, that would forbid discrimination on the basis of blindness. Both Dr.‘s were members of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.
Mr. and Mrs. Sixta bought a home at 902 Grand Ave. in Spenser Iowa where they raised their children. Julius was able to put his children through college. Daughter Barbara was a graduate of St. John’s College in Winfield Kansas.
The couple retired from their practice and were able to live out a comfortable life as a result of the success of the practice and the family investments. Julius passed away on July 10, 1990 and Lucy in 1993.
This is just a short overview of some of the influential blind persons who came out of Iowa during the early part of the twentieth century.
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The Blind History Lady
Discover other titles by The Blind History Lady
Owen Henry Schillinglaw
George W. Tannehill
The Mast Family
James Kelly Woodlee
The first book in a historical series of stories that look back at the day-to-day, lives of the average blind man or woman in the United States over the past two centuries. Learn about the blind persons who had come before, all they had to traverse to live a normal life and to accomplish all they did and with so few resources that the blind take for granted today. The Blind History Lady will explore the lives of blind editors, teachers, barbers, electricians, politicians, piano tuners and so many other professions that the blind of the United States have engaged in, over the many decades that will surprise even the Blind History Lady. A look at their lives will show how techniques used by the blind have evollved or disappeared. How the many adaptions to the sighted world have now become a part of the sighted world.